Meet the Organizers


The success of CCWAA is in large part to the people who decide to take on the task of planning a walk. Because of them, others with Chiari and related disorders are brought together, some for the first time. We asked our organizers for a "short" story, explaining why they are involved with the walk. Get to know your local site organizer.


Daphne Renfroe | Tuskegee, Alabama


Renfroe I suffered all my life as far as I can remember with real bad headaches. For 51years I could not bend over to tie my shoes or if someone said something real funny, I could not laugh like I wanted to because my head would just throb with pain. I was diagnosed with Chiari in May of 2013 and had my surgery August 2, 2013. Since then I am able to tie my shoes and laugh at anything I want and my head does not hurt. I still have some of the other symptoms that are associated with Chiari. For me to be the only person in my family and in my city that I know of to have Chiari, I get a lonely feeling sometimes. I know I am not alone because I have a wonderful group of family and friends to stand by me and support me. I also have a wonderful support group within the Chiari organization. I really enjoy organizing the walk in Tuskegee, Al. This is my second year as organizer for this area. I want to help raise awareness so that we can Conquer Chiari.


Bethany Wells | Phoenix, Arizona

b.wells.phoenix.az My name is Beth Wells. This is the 5th year our family has been organizing the AZ walk. We attended the first 2 walks, in 2008 and 2009 in AZ. In 2010, we learned there was not going to be a walk. So in 2011, we stepped up to bring the walk back to AZ.

Our motivation to organize the walk is our 15yr old chiari hero. He was diagnosed with chiari and syringo when he was 6 and had surgery shortly there after. Thankfully he has been feeling pretty good...but unfortunately his MRI done in Jan 2017 shows a much larger herniation and syrinx as well as more enlarged 4th ventricle. He is scheduled for another decompression surgery in June, 2017.

Londa Wells & Andria Netherton | Springdale, Arkansas

l.wells.springdale.ar When I, Andria (right) was diagnosed with chiari malformation in Nov 2010, we never heard of it so we searched around to learn all we could. We learned very quickly that it wasn't as rare as we once thought. There were many people in the same position as me. With very few people having heard of it, plus knowing there wasn't a cure, we decided to team up with Conquer Chiari and start a walk for Northwest Arkansas in hopes of raising local chiari awareness and funds for research. We started the walk in Springdale in 2012 after traveling to Little Rock to walk in 2011. Little did we know that mom, Londa (left) would be diagnosed with chiari in Nov 2013.

Sunny Gilstrap | Sacramento, California

Sunny Gilstrap My name is Sunny Gilstrap. I am the mother of two beautiful twin girls and wife to an amazing man. When my youngest twin (by one whole minute!) was born, she came into this world fighting. She fought to survive, and she nailed it! About eight months later her Pediatrician was concerned of possible fluid in her brain, so we had to have an MRI done. Luckily, no fluid. However, it was found that my baby has Chiari Malformation. I was told over the phone, a first time mommy with two babies, and the doctor, with 40 years of experience told me to write it down, how to spell it and I needed to research. He had only seen this twice during his tenure, Riley was his second case. 

I did what any mom would do, I cried for a minute, and then I got to work. We were referred to an amazing neurosurgeon, whom I trust. Which is good, as she may be performing brain surgery on one of the best things I ever did in my life. And we found Conquer Chiari. At our first walk in 2013, we discovered that there are so many out there struggling with Chiari, and unfortunately, most doctors cannot even pronounce it correctly. I am hoping to be a part of changing that. 

In 2016 I was given the opportunity to organize our local walk, and it was such an amazing experience. I am honored to be a part of this group, and so excited to see what is in store for this organization and our Chiari Community.

Victoria Wyma | Davie, Florida

Sunny Gilstrap My name is Victoria Wyma and I am a Chiarian. I was diagnosed with Chiari very young because I also suffered from seizures. I was lucky enough that my neurologist knew what Chiari malformation was and recognized it on my MRI scans right away. When I was about 12, I had decompression surgery at Children's National in D.C.. Although I live in Virginia and have been participating in the Conquer Chiari Walk Across America Events there with my mom for the past five years, I recently moved to Davie, Flordia for University. I then decided to apply to be a site organizer to bring a walk to me. I am very excited to raise awareness in South Florida and bring together the Chiari community for an afternoon!

In 2016 I was given the opportunity to organize our local walk, and it was such an amazing experience. I am honored to be a part of this group, and so excited to see what is in store for this organization and our Chiari Community.

Jessica Arriza | Debary, Florida

Sunny Gilstrap My name is Jessica Arriza. This is my first year organizing the walk. I am from Deltona, Florida. I am wife to the most supportive husband and mother of two. 
 
My nephew, Nicholas “Nic” is the reason why I am organizing the walk this year. Previous years it was held in Orlando but when we heard that Organizer was no longer doing them I was drawn to organizing this walk! I’m a proud Team Nic member and will also walk by my nephew in his Chiari journey. He was 10 months old when he was diagnosed, so Chiari is the only life he’s know. He’s had about 30 total surgeries but he is the strongest 14 year old kid I know!

Nicky Brookhart | Quincy, Illinois

n.boden My name is Nicky Brookhart and 2019 will be my 4th year organizing the Quincy Il Conquer Chiari Walk Across America. The reason for getting involved with the CCWAA is because I was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Malformation August 2015. Before that, like most people, myself and my family had never even heard of Chiari Malformation.

After my diagnosis, it became my mission to learn everything I could about Chiari and educate as many people as possible. This has included being on local news and radio programs, as well as speaking in front of the local Kiwanis club.

The first walk here in Quincy was 3 months after my decompression surgery, but it still went off without a hitch, and while the next two were an even bigger success, I'm hoping to increase awareness and participation each year! I continue to believe that it’s important to connect the newly diagnosed with the experienced Chiarians so that we are able to lean on, help, and learn from one another!

I am VERY honored to continue to represent the Chiari Community here in the Tri-State area and hope to bring the Chiari fighters together with our local community all while raising money for Chiari Malformation research and Awareness. #ChiariStrong!

Kent Wilson | Mayfield, Kentucky

k.wilson.mayfield.ky To understand why I decided to organize a local walk this year we have to understand my battle with Chiari. My symptoms started showing up 23 years ago as unbearable headaches and other symptoms mainly syncope that my physician couldn't figure out a reason way but for the most part I managed to maintain a "normal" active lifestyle working full time around 50 hours a week and keeping up with my 3 kids ages 13/12/9 even coaching some baseball, football, and soccer but all that changed June of 2018 when I had a major episode at work and had to have an ambulance called. All my test come normal as usual and as I laid on the hospital bed in and out of conscious sweat dripping down my face for no reason, the ER doctor looked and said we have to figure something out for you and ordered a CT scan and when he looked at the images he told me I needed to be admitted but they didn’t have a neurologist or neurosurgeon on staff but he made a call and I had to be at Baptist Health at 8 AM to see a neurosurgeon. So the next morning I go and see the "best" neurosurgeon in the area and am told I have Chiari 1.5 and am 12 mm... That's really all I can remember because they was a lot of medical mumble jumble. At this point he says we are going to try and avoid surgery because of the award to risk factor. My symptoms just got worst from there to the point I spent 10 days in the hospital under the care of both neuro and cardio but still blacked out 18 days and coded twice. But the physicians were more worried about blame each other's field of expertise (cardio said it was neuro and neuro said no its cardio) to actually figure out what was going on or put things together and have an eureka moment and say thus is related to your Chiari. It's at this point they decided I was no longer able to work after thirty years or drive and needed a walker to get around. It was also at this time I decided to become an advocate for myself and the other because too many of us continue to hear "Chiari don't cause that" or "It's all in your head" etc. This was the point I decided I would get involved with a Conquer Chiari Walk Across America. But I didn't realize the challenge I sign up for especially with my decompression surgery happen on June 21, 2019 right in the height of planning the event. I had some people try to talk me out of doing this year and just focus on recovering and aim for next year but this was my focus while I was struggling and I had faith with my wife/co-organizer (Stephanie) and my other co-organizer Brittney we could get it done. It's been a uphill battle especially with the unknown factor of Chiari making it a challenge to find a location, sponsors, etc and the fact that my symptoms continue to get worst to the point that I am now having seizures to go along with everything else. But I have enjoyed my journey as a first year coordinator and am counting down the days till the event and am already looking forward to CCWA2020!

Don Tryon | Auburn, Massachusetts

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My name is Don Tryon and this is my first year co-organizing the Massachusetts walk with Diana Casavecchia, which will once again be held in Auburn, MA. I was diagnosed late January 2008 and have undergone two Chiari related surgeries; decompression at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA in March of 2008 and a revision surgery at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA in November of 2012. I have been active in the Chiari community since my diagnosis, founding the “Chiari Network” (online support group) and spearheading “Team Western Mass” at the Massachusetts walk site annually since 2012. My strong support foundation includes my wife Jen, children Emily & Matthew, mother Debra & late father Don Jr., in-laws Mark & Kate, Grandparents, siblings, countless extended family & friends, and of course my fellow Chiari Warriors who have been there every step of the way.

I am amazed at how far we have come as a community and medical society since my diagnosis but we all know there is still a long way to go. Our story is just beginning and it’s thanks to organizations like Conquer Chiari that it’s finally being heard!


Nichole and Karen Josey | Michigan

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We are Nichole and Karen Josey from Swartz Creek, MI. This is our first year heading up the walk in Shelby Township, MI and we could not be more honored to be in this role. We have attended the walk here in Michigan since 2013 with a team and are eager to be on the other side this coming year. 

Nichole, 25, was diagnosed with Chiari in 2011. Her journey with Chiari began way before that however although we were unsure as to what it was. She started showing symptoms of Chiari in the Fall of 2009. As many with Chiari have experienced and families can sympathize too, we went through many different doctors appointments, for 2 years, finally receiving the diagnosis in 2011. Nichole had her first decompression surgery in August of 2012 with another following exactly 2 weeks later. Since August 21st, 2012 Nichole has been doing good without any complications. 

For 2 years we attended the walk with a team banding together raising awareness hoping to help others not go misdiagnosed, but little did we know at this point we had it happening still within our own family. Karen, Nichole's mom, was diagnosed in 2014 after being in a car accident. She has not yet had decompression surgery. 

We hope to continue to bring awareness to Michigan through the Conquer Chiari, not just on the day of the walk, but also during the days, weeks and months that lead up to it and follow after it.


Mary Cremer | Jefferson City, Missouri

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My name is Mary Cremer. My 14 yr old figured out I had Chiari after over a dozen doctors missed it and my MRI read "normal". Since her discovery, I have had 3 brain surgeries, tethered cord release surgery and cervical fusion. I also had a small syrinx. I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, CSF Leaks, MTHFR and other co conditions. I believe knowledge is power and bring about awareness about Chiari by openly speaking about it. I am also a Chronic Pain Patient Advocate and believe we all need to come together to keep government out of our healthcare decisions. Feel free to ask me any questions because I am glad to help anyone navigate this system. Chiarians are strong! 


Jessi James | Lincoln, Nebraska

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My name is Jessi James and I was diagnosed with Chiari and Syringomyelia at the age of 17. I have had 2 decompression surgeries since then. This is my 4th year participating in the Walk Across America. For the first two years I was a co-organizer, and this is the second year I am serving as state representative. My motivation in being involved is the lack of awareness there is about this malformation, and how many people suffer because of it. I hope to make someone's life easier and brighter because of what we are doing!


Amanda Griffith | Charlotte, North Carolina

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My name is Amanda Griffith and this will be my 3rd year doing our walk in Charlotte, NC. My son, Colton, was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation in September 2014, at 2 years old. He was in extreme pain and the only thing he knew to do was lay in the floor and scream, while holding his head. It was a difficult journey for us to be able to find the cause of his pain, and find a doctor that would actually listen to us. After he was diagnosed, we had our first meeting with a neurosurgeon in October, who told us he should be fine, Chiari isn't that bad in children. Colton's symptoms got worse, he was unable to walk without falling, had busted his head open twice due to falls, he was unable to eat without getting choked, his muscles started giving out on him, and more. We had another appointment in November, right after Thanksgiving and the doctor finally saw what we did and he was scheduled for decompression surgery December 11th. 7 days later he had complications and fluid build up and was sent in for emergency surgery. Since these 2 surgeries, Colton has been a happy and wild little boy. He has started to have symptoms reappear but we are confident that we will be able to get things under control. I hold a walk, and fight so hard for Chiari and a cure for him, and for all those who have to suffer.

We can't wait to make 2019 a record breaking year, get the word out there about Chiari and help find a cure!


Laura Mariani | Dayton, Ohio

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My name is Laura Mariani, and my daughter has Chiari. She was diagnosed at age 4 and had decompression surgery shortly thereafter. It took almost 2 years to get a correct diagnosis. We had never heard of chiari, and it was a frightening and isolating diagnosis. She is now 17 and is fortunately doing well. 

Conquer Chiari was a valuable resource for us when we had no idea where to go for answers. When our local walk started up 5 years ago, I knew I had to be involved and give back. Being able to connect with others in their chiari journey and know that we are not alone has been invaluable. I helped with the walk for the past 5 years, and this year I am taking it over from the previous organizer. I have met so many amazing people and heard so many stories of strength and courage. I hope to continue the success of our walk for them.


Kristy Gergal | Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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My name is Kristy Gergal. This is my first year as an organizer, and the first year for a walk in Lancaster, PA! My motivation for organizing the walk is my 6 year old son Chase. He was diagnosed with Chiari when he was a year and a half, and since that time has underwent 4 decompression surgeries. Like most other people, we had never heard of Chiari and were afraid and searching for any information we could find.

Now that we have a handle on understanding the diagnosis and what it means for Chase, we would like to make a difference to others. By sharing our story, we are helping to raise awareness and trying to help others who are as frightened as we were when we found our son needed to have brain surgery. Chase has so much support behind him from our wonderful friends and family, who I know will help make this walk a huge success!


Kristen Opfer-Grim | Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

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Hi, my name is Kristen and I am the lead organizer of the 4th annual Conquer Chiari Lehigh Valley Walk. I was diagnosed with Chiari in 2002 at the age of 22 and have had 6 surgeries to date for my Chiari and Syringomyelia (as a result of being misdiagnosed for years). 8 years ago, my loving but crazy daughter, and loving but crazy sister and I did our first walk; and each year I have gotten more and more involved in organizing a local walk. I co-organized in Philadelphia and Levittown and was thrilled when a walk started closer to me in the Lehigh Valley. Each year my team has also grown more and more (we went from the 3 of us to over 20 last year!) and I am so grateful for the support I have from my friends and family. I look forward to the walk each year as 

I am always thrilled to get to meet others with Chiari and to feel that in my way I'm fighting back and making a difference for others. Can't wait to see you all there as we walk to Conquer Chiari in 2020!!!


Sarah Johnson | Clemson, South Carolina

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My name is Sarah E. Johnson (left), pictured with my Co-Organizer, Leah Anderson (right). I am a Clemson University Alumna, Medical University of South Carolina Alumna, and a Chiarian. I was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari I Malformation (CM-I) in 2008, after a series of soccer injuries and concussions, which led to debilitating headaches and piercing neck pains. My diagnosis was confirmed after an MRI scan of the brain; CM-I.

In the past few years, I have experienced my symptoms increasing in severity. I have been put on various medications to help treat my symptoms and have now found a good combination that works best for me, as I am not a surgical candidate. Every Chiari case/patient is different! We are here to support one another in our Chiari journeys and that is why I have become involved in this fabulous (and FUN!) event.

I am truly honored to represent Conquer Chiari in Clemson, SC for my fifth year as a Site Organizer. Our hopes are to bring together fellow Chiari Warriors and community members in the Upstate of South Carolina, while raising funds and awareness for Chiari Malformation research!

Join us and help Conquer Chiari!


Tracy Fapetu | Nashville,Tennessee

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Hello My name is Tracy Fapetu and I suffer from Arnold Chiari Malformation And Fibromyalgia.This is my second year as the organizer of Nashville,Tn and many more to come.It all started back home in Nashville, Tennessee in 2004, after going back and forth to the doctor about headaches, dizziness, gaining a lot of weight and not knowing why, back pain, and muscle spasms. I often got headaches every other day, all day, and nothing would make them go away. I was always told to take some Tylenol or given pain medication. It was like nobody cared about me. It even led up to me losing my job, but I didn’t give up. I kept on struggling and striving to do my best. I was even told that I had plantar fascia for the numbness and tingling in my hands and feet and was sent to a foot specialist.

At the time all of these things were going on, I was a single parent of 3. I kept switching doctors because I always said he/she don’t know what they were doing. That still didn’t take the pain away, but I had to be strong about it and do what I had to at the time. I had to deal with the pain and suffering for 3 years.

In 2014, I met the man that changed my life, and my husband and I moved to New York City. It was October of 2015 I decided to go and get checked out by a doctor in Brooklyn, NY  and she referred me to a eye doctor, and he then referred me to a neuro specialist, who then ordered an MRI and a lumbar puncture and finally got me some closure for my problems. In August of 2017 I had brain surgery which is not a fix but just prolonged the symptoms.I want to say thanks to my doctors and my husband Folusara Fapetu. Now I’m on a road to getting it under control. My husband has been here with me through this struggle, and I thank him for that.


Debbie & Breanna Williams | Morgantown, West Virginia

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We are Debbie and Breanna Williams from Morgantown, West Virginia. My daughter, Breanna, was diagnosed with Chiari malformation at the age of 16, decompressed at 17. As she became very ill, with almost every Chiari symptom, it hindered her life in many ways. Fortunately, after having the surgery and being 7 years post-op today, she has just a few symptoms today. However, she has severe memory lost and doesn’t remember being sick. Breanna has a son who is almost 4 years old and the joy of our lives! She works from home as a medical coder, taking online classes to further her education, and takes care of her son, Landon, full time.
My daughter and I started the Morgantown, WV Walk in 2013. In 2012, as I was having chemo due to being a TNBC survivor, Breanna asked me to attend a Chiari Walk with her if one came close to us and I felt good enough. Luckily, the Charleston walk was close and I was off treatment at the time. She had a great time and met new Chiarians who became some of our dear friends. This has been a blessing in disguise for me to be honored to serve as a representative for the Conquer Chiari Walk Across America. It’s my pleasure to not only give to my daughter, but give to the Chiarians fighting this terrible disease. I look forward to volunteering my time to the Chiari Foundation as I am rewarded with friendship through the years to come.


Ashley Thompson | Madison, Wisconsin

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My name is Ashley Thompson. I am an Airmen, mother of two, and Chiarian. After suffering from debilitating migraines for nearly 10 years and a few years of vertigo and other problematic symptoms; I was diagnosed with Arnold Chiari Malformation in early 2014. Long story short, I was finally able to get my doctor to schedule an MRI. I went home and did some research before my MRI and talked with my family. After talking with my half-sister on my father’s side, I learned that she was experiencing the same exact symptoms and had been diagnosed with Chiari. With that handy information I went in for my MRI telling them “my sister has this, please check me for it”. Sure enough they were able to “see” it, a 9mm+ descent. I met with a neurosurgeon and a few weeks later I underwent decompression surgery with a laminectomy. I have felt great ever since and am almost back to my “normal”.

In 2015 I became involved with CCWAA as a site Organizer. I thought it was an amazing event/experience and decided that I wanted to be a part of this wonderful organization. My hope is to bring together fellow Chiarians and community members in the Madison area to increase Chiari Malformation awareness for a brighter and more knowledgeable future not only for us, but also for our children!

Join us in Madison and help spread the word!


Angela Zuniga-Meyer | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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1997 changed my world. I was a carefree freshman reveling in all the traditions and fun at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, until I became very ill and required a neck lymph node biopsy. After the surgery, I immediately indicated something was wrong with the back of my head and neck. All the surgeons and doctors thought it was due to surgical positioning. 

The months and years that followed saw a drastic increase in unexplained neurological symptoms and pain. I began losing functionality and strength in my extremities and even suffered drop attacks on the way to cheer on the Badgers at Camp Randall. 

Many specialists later, one intuitive doctor says "I think you may have a condition that I have heard of but never seen". Determined for answers, he sent my films and medical record out for review, they came back confirming, Arnold Chiari 1 Malformation. I was decompressed at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital in the Fall of 1999. Since then, I have been diagnosed with Craniocervical Instability, Klippel-Feil syndrome and Autonomic Dysfunction. I have visited doctors all over the country to decide the safest route to stabilize my conditions. Deciding to wait on the fusion and revision surgery has been a long hard journey.

I know far to well that awareness brings action. So I must bring this walk to Wisconsin because Chiari needs action and advocacy. As my family and friends support me, I want to help support our Chiari community in Wisconsin. My name is Angela Zuniga-Meyer, I am a survivor and I want to help Conquer Chiari.