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ALS is personal for NP athletics

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NEW PALESTINE — Al Cooper and Twitter don’t get along.

The New Palestine athletics director isn’t a fan of most social media, in fact. Cooper believes the free flow of instant information – especially among the teenagers he helps supervise – can do more harm

than good.

Friday evening, though, as Cooper became the latest of thousands of individuals across the globe to help raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he had to admit tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming have their benefits.

“I always caution people against social media,” Cooper said. “And this would be the positive effects of social media. Because now, getting it out there and creating a cause and giving it a voice and being able to exponentially communicate it has been pretty cool, I would say.”

During the Dragons’ season-opening football game Friday, Cooper and New Palestine basketball coaches Adam Barton and Brian Kehrt took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge, a recent charity phenomenon in which water is dumped on an individual who has been challenged by a previous Ice Bucket participant. The person receiving the challenge has 24 hours to accept, or decline and donate $100 to ALS research.

Seemingly everyone from Barack Obama to Vladmir Putin has received the Ice Bucket Challenge, and videos of professional athletes, celebrities and normal folks worldwide being dumped with ice cold water are everywhere.

The attention, which is reportedly the brainchild of ALS patient and former Boston College baseball captain Peter Frates, has worked. The ALS Association recently reported it has received $15.6 million in donations compared to $1.8 million during the same period a year ago (July 29 to Aug. 18).

“The thing that strikes me about the whole thing is just how wildfire-ish it has spread,” Cooper said. “That kind of outpouring and support … it’s awesome to see.”

For those around New Palestine, ALS is particularly personal.

One of the individuals who helped dump water on Cooper is Mark Judy, a 1975 New Palestine graduate and former three-sport star. Judy has been battling ALS for some time; a battle Cooper, a 1979 New Palestine grad, recently witnessed another good friend endure.

Longtime New Palestine teacher and coach Gary Starks passed away in March after fighting ALS,  a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

It was the idea of Barton, the Dragons’ boys basketball coach, to conduct Friday’s Ice Bucket Challenge in the memory of Starks.

Cooper recalled Starks as a mentor when Cooper returned to teach at New Palestine following his graduation from what is now the University of Indianapolis. Starks was previously Cooper’s woodshop teacher and football coach. And Starks, who taught at New Palestine for 37 years, was the Dragons’ first varsity softball coach.

“He was a good dude,” Cooper said. “That’s an ugly disease. From a standpoint of watching your good friend struggle with it … it wasn’t like him at all. This was a guy that was the biggest Purdue fan in the history of Purdue football. He loved life, (was) active and mobile. Great family. It’s tragic really.”

When Starks died in March, ALS – or Lou Gehrig’s Disease – was certainly well known. But the last several weeks of attention has made ALS a worldwide topic.

For that, Pam Starks is grateful.

“It’s really given it so much awareness,” said Gary Starks’ widow. “Because it’s raised more money than it has in many, many years.

“We’ve found out that more people have (ALS) than we thought did. It’s becoming more and more prominent. So it seems like we need to continue the research and see if we can’t get a cure. It’s debilitating.”

Pam Starks and members of her family have taken the Ice Bucket Challenge. Gary passed away at age 69 relatively quickly after being diagnosed.

“All the research and all the money that it’s brought in … I just hope there’s someway they can find a cure or find some way to slow it down or what’s causing it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hereditary and sometimes it’s out of the blue.”

Daily Reporter staff writer Kristy Deer contributed to this report.

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