At RaceTrac’s annual Run for Research at Truist Park Sat., Sept. 16, Atlanta Braves mascot Blooper posed with runners next to a replica of a DeLorean DMC-12 from the hit movie series Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. Fox wasn’t there, but connections to the actor, who lives with Parkinson’s disease (PD), were everywhere, including in the upbeat atmosphere, fancy sneakers and colorful ‘crazy socks’ donned by the nearly 2,000 participants of all ages. 

Since 2011, the gas station company — Georgia’s second-largest private business — has held fun runs and store promotions to raise more than $7 million for the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). Along with other key corporate partners, RaceTrac’s philanthropic contributions have helped the foundation discover biomarkers to aid detection and get closer to a cure for Parkinson’s, a nervous system disorder which causes cell damage in the brain, leading to a drop in dopamine and symptoms such as tremors and uncontrolled movements. 

PD hits home in Georgia, where the mortality rate is 10.9%, placing the state at No. 15 on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of highest death rates from the disease, which affects an estimated 1 million people across the country. Atlantan and former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson died in 2021 as a result of complications from PD. 

Parkinson’s is also personal for RaceTrac founders the Bolch family, who moved their auto fuel company headquarters from Missouri to Atlanta in 1976. Carl Bolch Sr. died from PD in 1978 and his son, current chairman Carl Bolch Jr. lives with the disease and has served on the patient council of MJFF. 

Melanie Isbill, chief marketing officer for RaceTrac and a member of the Board of Directors for MJFF, is a third-generation Bolch family member who says she grew up knowing her grandfather had PD. But Fox’s transparent battle with PD was her first awareness of the disease in pop culture because he and the MJFF (which he co-founded in 2000) were already synonymous with the movement to end it. 

“I grew up watching the Back to the Future movies, and therefore I kind of knew what Parkinson’s was, because I knew Michael J. Fox,” she said. “That was really what I understood of the disease.” 

Isbill says her father’s diagnosis in 2007 spurred her to find out more about PD’s effects on communities and how the family business might get involved. 

“That’s really probably when I learned a lot more about the disease, both because I did my own research to understand it and because I have slowly watched my father experience it over the years,” she said. “I think one thing people don’t necessarily recognize is the impact that Parkinson’s has — not only on the individual [who] has it, but on the primary caregiver, on the family members. And so I’ve been able to really learn and experience that. And that’s why this cause is so important and RaceTrac is supporting it.” 

This year’s runners at Truist Park had their own stories to tell about PD. 

Jacqueline Pittman (second from right) says the 2023 RaceTrac Run for Research at Truist Park brought her fitness group (pictured) together around a common cause in fighting Parkinson’s Disease. (Credit: Kristi York Wooten/GPB News)

Jacqueline Pittman from Douglasville ran with women friends who first bonded over fitness and causes, an “amazing sisterhood” that considers PD an issue “close to heart,” although none in the group is personally affected.

“Whatever we can do to be able to help that cause, that’s why we are all out here doing it,” she said.

Gail and Bill Chestnut brought their own team of family and friends with matching T-shirts.

“Bill has Parkinson’s; he’s had it for 30 years,” Gail said. “He’s diagnosed since an early age like Michael J. Fox. Our son organized [for us to attend] this event about five years ago, our team, to raise money and awareness and to support that. I’ve become team president and our team is growing every year with friends, family, babies, in-laws. Today, it’s maybe 25 or 30 people.” 

Jessi Keavney brought her mother and three sons and participates in research with MJFF and other organizations.

“My dad passed away from Parkinson’s two years ago,” she said “And my grandfather had Parkinson’s, and so does my uncle. I have a genetic variant that makes me have increased risk for Parkinson’s. So I’ve been participating in research right now really for prevention. We go to [the Run for Research] every year … and I see the neurologist every year just to make sure everything’s okay.” 

In a Zoom interview, Veronique Enos Kaefer, MJFF VP of Philanthropy, said partnerships with companies like RaceTrac, which is among the top 20 out of 130,000 annual donors and $1.5 billion raised since 2000, are vital to keeping the connections strong between families affected by the disease and the scientific work. 

“Patients are at the heart of getting to new treatments and cures,” she said. “And it takes all of us: It takes researchers, it takes the foundation, it takes the biopharma industry, it takes visionaries, philanthropists and people living with Parkinson’s to help clarify what their personal priorities are, what their needs are, what the gaps are.” 

It also takes Michael J. Fox. 

The actor and author is the subject of Still, this summer’s hit documentary about his journey with PD and the indefatigable optimism that drives his approach to personal well being and the mission to end Parkinson’s.  

Three days after the RaceTrac event in Atlanta, Fox spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, where he received the Elevate Prize Catalyst Award for his contribution to social good through activism and leadership. During an onstage conversation with Hillary Clinton and MJFF co-founder and CEO Deborah Brooks, Fox talked about his determination and Brooks thanked the donors who have funded the research that has poised the organization to potentially end PD in our lifetimes. 

When Clinton asked Fox how he keeps going while also enduring severe symptoms from the disease, he repeated a favorite gratitude mantra: “Every day, I wake up and say, ‘What a privilege.” 

“People say to me, ‘You’ve had a great career and family…’ and I would say, [yes], but you don’t get many opportunities like this in life,” Fox said, as audience members including world leaders and nonprofit executives applauded and wiped their eyes. “I wake up and I have this opportunity in front of me and the people in front of me who are helping to get it done. How can I turn that down?”

This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Kristi York Wooten is a digital editor, content manager, and journalist based in Atlanta. Her work appears in The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and others.