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Posted July 21, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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'Bark for Life' dog walk to raise funds for cancer

Sharen Gromling pets Summer
Sharen Gromling pets Summer. The pair will be participating in the Bark for Life walk to benefit the American Cancer Society. The dog's former owner, a cancer victim, was the inspiration for the event. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Gromling walks Summer
Gromling walks Summer outside her Frederick County home. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Summer -- like many dogs -- loves to walk.

She and others can have their chance to walk for a cause at Jim Barnett Park in Winchester on Saturday.

The Bark For Life event will take place at the park, starting with registration at 8 a.m. and the one-mile walk at 9 a.m. The day's events include other games and activities for dogs and their owners.

Summer, now 10 years old, will be there, said her owner, Sharen Gromling. Part golden retriever, part Burmese mountain dog and "part X, Y, Z," according to Gromling, Summer has walked in the event for the past three years.

Her original owner, Debby Didawick, came up with the idea years ago to bring together other dog lovers and put on a walking event to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

"It was her idea to do this dog walk in the park, and she never got the chance to pull it off; she passed away four years ago," her husband, Mike Didawick said Thursday. "So the Frederick County Animal Shelter and some other people and the local ACS board decided to go ahead and do this, at that time in her memory."

The event has gathered interest in the community, according to Didawick.

"But it's been a successful, you know, it's a small event, but successful," he said.

Gromling, who recently retired as the city's director of administration, worked with Mrs. Didawick for 18 years. Mrs. Didawick worked her way up the ranks from a job as a receptionist to eventually become assistant director under Gromling. She then left the city to work as director of human resources for Frederick County.

"So for 18 years we were pretty closely connected through work but also as personal friends," Gromling said. "She was one of my best friends."

But as Gromling recalled, three months after starting the new job, Mrs. Didawick called Gromling and told her she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and then other treatments to fight the disease for about two years.

"She fought it, she was an amazing fighter," Gromling said. "Debby had this eternal optimistic attitude about life -- always smiling. ... She was really inspirational to all of us."

As Gromling recalled, she and Mrs. Didawick, both avid exercisers, would go walking and often dogs would come up to them. But Mrs. Didawick would shy away from the animals when they would bark at her and she was afraid of them, Gromling said. However, Gromling, who liked dogs and other animals, said she explained to her friend that the dogs just wanted attention.

Gromling said she showed Mrs. Didawick how to approach dogs "at their level."

"The next thing I know she's adopted a dog that couldn't stay in one home because of some allergies, and then Summer was born," Gromling recalled.

Mrs. Didawick adopted another dog shortly after that, she said.

About three or four days after his wife's funeral, Didawick came to the Gromlings and said he would have to take Summer to the local SPCA because he couldn't take care of the dog, Gromling said.

"I'm such a mush, a sap, whatever, I said 'you can't do that,' and he said 'I can't take care of her,' and he said 'you wouldn't want her, would you?' and I said 'bring her over,'" Gromling recalled.

Summer had grown some since she last saw her as a puppy, so the 110-pound dog surprised Gromling. Summer quickly lost some of the weight through walking, and now weighs between 70 and 80 pounds, she said.

Summer also gets along well with the Gromlings' other dog, Niki. Summer's dark brown fur and Niki's light coat prompted the nickname "black and tan" when they are together.

"But she's got Debby's spirit," Gromling said. "She's a happy dog that just relates so well to other animals and humans. She's just gonna want to go home with you."

Mrs. Didawick also had worked closely with the Esther Boyd Animal Shelter in Frederick County, as well as the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, before her death, Gromling said.

So after Mrs. Didawick died, workers at the shelter set out to start an event to honor her memory and to help the American Cancer Society.

"Those were two of her passions -- animals and the American Cancer Society -- and so it was a great partnership," Gromling said.

The first Bark for Life came in September 2005, Didawick said, and was held at Clear Brook Park. The next two years it was held at Sherando Park. This is the first year it will be held at Jim Barnett Park, and Gromling said the location is good because the area also has a new dog park.

Summer's been walking in the event since the first one.

"It's my continued connection with Debby," Gromling said. "It is a way to continue to remember her and the impact she had on so many people lives."

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