Student inspires city landmarks to go blue Monday

Two of Baltimore's most recognizable landmarks will be lit up in blue Monday in honor of World Diabetes Day — a commemoration inspired by a 16-year-old girl's desire to draw attention to the prevalent disease.

The Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower will be illuminated Monday evening. Blue is the color of the globally recognized symbol for diabetes, a circle.

The city granted the request by Amanda Witherspoon, a Garrison Forest School sophomore who was diagnosed six years ago with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that can damage victims' eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels, and nerves.

Witherspoon approached officials in the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts last month with a request that at least one downtown building be illuminated in blue to observe World Diabetes Day. The event, part of a campaign led by the International Diabetes Federation, is marked annually on Nov. 14.

Witherspoon said her own ignorance about the disease when she was diagnosed in 2006 inspired her to try to bring light to the issue.

"When I was diagnosed, I had no idea what diabetes was, and when I tell my friends and teachers about it most people don't know what it is," Witherspoon said. "I just really wanted to bring awareness to it. We really need to tell people about it."

Witherspoon said that it was soon after her diagnosis that she learned how important it was to educate others about the disease, which affects 25.8 million children and adults in the United States, or about 8.3 percent of the population, according to the American Diabetes Association.

In fifth grade, a friend accompanied her every day to the school nurse, who would check Witherspoon's blood sugar and give her insulin shots, Witherspoon said. Soon, she said, all of her friends were "eager to help in any way and wanted to know everything about it."

After learning about World Diabetes Day last year, Witherspoon vowed to herself that she would try to raise awareness on a larger scale. To help with her pitch to the city, Witherspoon late last month contacted the New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a national group that advocates and funds research to help cure Type 1 diabetes.

"We've gotten parents involved and advocating for us, but for a 16-year-old to step up and advocate and try to bring awareness to Type 1 diabetes is something very special," said Corey Stottlemyer, outreach manager for JDRF. "Amanda has taken on something tremendous and we applaud her for it."

It wasn't easy to coordinate the illumination of two major landmarks within two weeks, city officials said. But Witherspoon said she found she had an ally in the Office of Promotion and The Arts.

"I'm a pretty easy sell when it comes to helping the Type 1 community," said Kathleen Hornig, director of festivals for the office and the mother of a child with Type 1 diabetes. "But I was also really impressed with [Witherspoon's] initiative. Even though it was last-minute, she had really thought it through."

Hornig said Witherspoon came to a meeting equipped with a PowerPoint presentation.

The city Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as the Department of General Services, helped pull the project together — and the office will consider repeating the lighting project in the future, Hornig said.

"Technically, logistically, we had to overcome some hurdles, but it came together," Hornig said. "If Amanda wants to take it to the next level, she should definitely go for it. With two months, instead of two weeks, she could really take it to the next level."

On Monday, Witherspoon's classmates at Garrison Forest will wear blue in honor of World Diabetes Day.

Witherspoon said she was looking forward to seeing her vision in lights on Monday.

"It was a lot of work," she said. "I guess I have to wait to see it to get the full effect, but it's pretty surreal."

erica.green@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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