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Active Advocate: Hartland Girl Seeks to Raise Awareness of Juvenile Arthritis 

  • Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, stretches before field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, stretches before field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, practices passing during field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, practices passing during field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, stretches before field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
  • Anika Eastman, 10, of Hartland, practices passing during field hockey practice at Vail Field in Woodstock, Vt. on September 24, 2013. Eastman was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 3, and has since become an advocate for research on the inflammatory autoimmune disease. The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk, which was started by Eastman and her family, takes place this weekend in Lebanon. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

Hartland — Wearing long blonde braids, athletic shorts and a green T-shirt, Anika Eastman jogged around Woodstock’s Vail Field and settled into a stretching circle with her field hockey teammates.

To some of the 25 third through sixth graders, Tuesday afternoon’s routine stretches meant nothing more than limbering up before their 90-minute practice. But to 10-year-old Anika, stretching means much more.

At age 3, Anika was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory and autoimmune disease that affects nearly 300,000 Americans 18 and under. Although there is no known cure, physical activity is a key factor in staying healthy and combating symptoms.

“It’s really important to get your joints moving and to stay active because movement is the best medicine really,” Anika said before taking the field Tuesday. “That’s why I do so many sports and active things.”

The word “active” has more than one meaning to Anika, whose vision and concern extends beyond her own situation.

Her advocacy efforts have left a lasting impression on both the local and national level. Anika has been traveling to Washington. for the past three years and lobbying lawmakers over rules and regulations that can negatively impact the growth and progress of those afflicted with arthritis.

A little closer to home, the Eastmans spearheaded the Upper Valley Arthritis Walk at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, and Saturday will mark the fundraiser’s second year.

“The event is not about endurance,” Kirsten Eastman, Anika’s mother, said of the walk that takes place on the nature trails behind the hospital. “It’s more making a statement and supporting the cause, and recognizing that if you have arthritis, that it’s important to move,” she added.

The trails vary in length and participants can walk any distance they see fit. In its inaugural year, the event raised $11,031, and Eastman said she hopes this weekend’s walk will exceed the previous year’s amount. To date, $9,500 has been raised.

The proceeds from Saturday’s walk will go toward research for treatment and finding a cure and, among other things, help fund scholarships to camps, such as a weeklong gettaway for individuals with arthritis at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee. There will be a silent auction, a 50/50 raffle draw, childrens activities and a yoga instructor present, all to the beat of live music.

“By participating in the Arthritis Walk, people are not only helping the Arthritis Foundation by raising money, but they are helping to prevent and control arthritis in themselves by being physically active,” Patti Maccabe, regional development director for the Arthritis Foundation’s New England region, wrote in an email Tuesday.

Kirsten Eastman said it’s important to make people aware that arthritis — which can be defined as painful inflammation and stiffness in the joints — is “not a disease of just the elderly.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,200 New Hampshire children and 600 Vermont children are diagnosed with pediatric arthritis.

“It’s important to look at this in that this isn’t just a disease that happens to people when they get older,” said Eastman, an occupational therapist at APD and for a school district in southern Windsor County. “This is something that affects kids and it affects their lives. It’s important that it doesn’t get ignored.”

And to ensure that doesn’t happen, members of the Eastman family have traveled annually to the nation’s capital to publicize current issues that surround arthritis each year. For example, this year a prevalent topic was patients’ access to treatment.

Anika “has become quite the advocate,” her mother noted, meeting with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on her most recent trip in March.

Welch described Anika as “direct, friendly and quite persuasive,” after their joint meeting during the arthritis Advocacy Summit event on Capitol Hill.

Anika convinced Welch to cosponsor the Patients’ Access to Treatments Act of 2013, a bill that would prohibit medications for certain chronic or disabling conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, from being classed in a more expensive specialty tier of drugs.

“She was the one that brought (the bill) to my attention,” Welch said Wednesday. “It was something that I wasn’t aware of until she approached me — and we are a cosponsor now, specifically from a result of her advocacy.”

Anika’s father, David Eastman, is Vermont’s “ambassador” to the Arthritis Foundation and also home schools Anika and her older brother, Caleb.

Through lobbying legislators, Anika said change is possible.

“It raises awareness to the congressman and hopefully we can get them to sign onto bills,” she said intently, demonstrating a familarity with the legislative process far beyond most people her age.

Before stepping onto the pitch for her afternoon field hockey practice on Tuesday, Anika said she has a daily stretching routine at home, and participates in a sport each season — downhill skiing in the winter, lacrosse in the spring and swimming in the summer. She also stays active by hiking, biking and building forts.

Anika’s field hockey coach said her attitude and level of play sets a positive example for others, regardless of age.

“She is one of those athletes that is always attentive to what is happening and she works really hard,” said coach Jessie Wood. “She is just one of those athletes that wants to do the right thing, wants to do a good job.”

And Welch, a former Hartland resident who now lives in Norwich, said Anika made a lasting impression.

“She is a really special kid,” Welch said. “To have that upbeat positive attitude when you are bearing that burden should be an inspiration to all of us. It’s hard to forget her. She was a breath of fresh air. (And) she advocated not just for herself, but advocated for children like herself all around the world.”

The second annual Upper Valley Arthritis Walk will start at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, with registration beginning at 9 a.m. For more information call 800-639-2113 or email pmaccabe@arthritis.org.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.