The journey faced by people with serious illnesses is, in many ways, like a race: It takes courage. There may be bumps along the road. But there's a finish line, and the race is worth the effort.
Scott Dahl, a long-distance runner from Williamsville who carries out that philosophy to comfort the afflicted, received a "community hero" award Friday from the Illinois Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross.
As volunteer coordinator of the central Illinois chapter of Medals4Mettle, he uses medals earned and donated by long-distance runners to lift the spirits of people facing life challenges.
"I don't think of myself as a hero - I'll reserve that for military, police or fire," said Dahl, 39. "I just like to help people out."
The chapter, operated out of the basement of Dahl's home, has presented more than 200 medals to people in Springfield, Peoria and other central Illinois communities since 2009.
Dahl, a member of the Springfield Road Runners Club who works full-time as regional membership director for the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, started the chapter after reading about Indianapolis-based Medals4Mettle in a 2008 issue of Runner's World magazine.
Medals4Mettle has 60 chapters across the country. It collects medals donated by runners who have completed marathons, half-marathons, triathlons and ultra-marathons.
The chapters then work with hospitals and individuals to identify people who might benefit from receiving medals for displaying courage, or mettle, Dahl said.
"There are a lot of parallels between running and life challenges," he said.
Dahl works with two dozen other volunteers - not all of them runners - to collect, clean, distribute and dress up the medals with colorful ribbons that are purchased by Mid-America Advertising, the chapter's main sponsor.
The medals are meant to symbolize to recipients "what they're going through or where they've been," Dahl said.
The recipients often are children. Dahl said the chapter works closely with the staff of St. John's Children's Hospital in Springfield and Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
"Kids just love medals," he said. "They really feel a sense of accomplishment. It just provides them that extra boost, and it often provides a needed distraction from their illness. They hang onto their medals. They hang them by their bed."
Even though they may be parting with something they trained months or years to achieve, runners who donate the medals feel satisfaction, he said.
"They realize that someone is facing a tougher race," he said. "This medal really comes from the heart, and it's one of those gifts that money can't buy."
Dahl has completed 33 marathons and eight half-marathons. He donated all 41 medals to the chapter.
The first medal awarded locally by Medals4Mettle was the one Dahl received after completing the 2007 Chicago Marathon - a particularly difficult race because of the heat that year.
The first recipient was Adam Carter of Decatur, who was 11 and undergoing chemotherapy for soft-tissue cancer at St. John's when he received Dahl's medal in summer 2009.
Adam died from the disease in April 2010, but his father, Tim, said the medal, and the story behind Dahl's hard work to earn it, brought a smile to Adam's face.
"He was very excited about that," Tim Carter said. "He had it around his neck. He later had it on a wall in his room. That was one of his special treasures."
Medals4Mettle donation boxes, where earned medals can be dropped off, are available at Springfield Running Center, Running Central in Peoria and Body N' Sole in Savoy. Medals also can be mailed to: Medals4Mettle, Attn: Scott Dahl, 148 Hawthorne Place, Williamsville, IL 62693.
Dahl can be reached at email@example.com.
The other eight "local heroes" honored Friday by Springfield's Illinois Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross were:
* Senior Hero: Dorothy Bullard, who has given 50 years of volunteer service that has included running a food pantry in Morrisonville, being a National Weather Service Observer and teaching Red Cross classes.
* Civic Hero: Kimberly Flanagan, who works with "Girls on the Run" and "genH," two local organizations that teach children and young girls in the Springfield and Ball-Chatham school districts how to live healthy lifestyles.
* Military Hero: U.S. Army Cpl. Chad Young, 25, of Rochester, who was killed Nov. 3 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
* Health Care Hero: Dr. Gregory Brandt, an oncologist with the SIU School of Medicine who treats children with cancer.
* Youth Hero: Erick Butt, 18, who has donated almost three gallons of blood. He also worked as an advocate for blood donations at his former Springfield high school.
* Workplace Hero: Ken and Mary Mitchell, directors of the Washington Street Mission, which helps the homeless in Springfield and offers an after-school program for youths.
* Public Safety Hero: Brenda McCallister, an emergency medical technician who, while off duty at her son's baseball game last summer, saved a 6-year-old boy's life by using cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
* Education Hero: Frank Fegan, a professor at Robert Morris University who, according to the Red Cross, "goes above and beyond to help his students both inside and outside the classroom." Fegan also is a volunteer instructor for the Red Cross.
Youth writing contest
The 10 winners of the American Red Cross Heroes Breakfast "Youth Writing Contest" wrote essays about their personal heroes. The 10 were chosen from among 600 entries. Each won a $300 U.S. Savings Bond.
Here's a list of this year's winners and schools:
* Ben Deaner, second grade, Christ the King
* Jayda Evans, second grade, Fairview
* Logan Huggins, third grade, Cantrall
* Morgan Ansley, fifth grade, St. Agnes
* Aleah March, sixth grade, Franklin Middle
* Kayla Lou Hall, sixth grade, Washington Middle
* Chianne Neal, seventh grade, Riverton
* Matthew Richey, eighth grade, St. Agnes
* Teresa Tran, 11th grade, Southeast High School
* Katie Baer, 12th grade, Southeast High School
Photo: Jason Johnson/The State Journal-Register -- Scott Dahl of Williamsville, volunteer coordinator of the central Illinois chapter of Medals4Mettle, stands beside the refrigerator where he keeps some of his marathon number tags. Jason Johnson/The State Journal-Register Scott Dahl of Williamsville, volunteer coordinator of the central Illinois chapter of Medals4Mettle, stands beside the refrigerator where he keeps some of his marathon number tags. Purchase this photo at www.sj-r.com/reprints