A Life Inspired: Finding Community Through Arthritis Support – Arthritis National Research Foundation

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Derek Belisle, Marketing Director for the Arthritis National Research Foundation, was invited to the Arthritis Introspective G7 Gathering Conference. Below is his account of the weekend and the people he met.

I often tell people that my job is a little different. I tell them that I go to work everyday in an effort to put myself out of a job because the mission of our foundation is to cure arthritis. If we hopefully accomplish this goal there won’t be much need for me to be here anymore, and to be honest, it would be a dream come true because it means we will have succeeded in fulfilling our mission.

I grew up being involved with the foundation. When I was only 9 years old, my mother and Executive Director, Helene Belisle, started working for ANRF and over the last 18 years I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing people afflicted with various forms of arthritis. These interactions as a young man helped mold my outlook on life and allowed me to learn the importance of the arthritis research being conducted across the country. I view these early experiences as a gift in my life as they left an impression on me, teaching me that in life the things that often mean the most are larger than yourself.

I met Kevin, President of Arthritis Introspective, at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual convention in San Diego last fall. Immediately I felt his passion and recognized the importance of working together in providing arthritis support. Arthritis Introspective is a nonprofit, community partner of ANRF, that organizes support groups for young and middle-aged adults with rheumatic diseases. They currently have support groups in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington providing a support group environment dedicated to helping arthritis patients thrive.


Kevin, President of Arthritis Inrtospective – Getting the crowd ready!

A few months after meeting Kevin, he invited ANRF to be one of their official charity partners for the Arthritis Introspective Gathering Conference. The Gathering Conference is an annual event designed to bring everyone together for support and to offer a unique learning experience. We were thrilled to accept his invitation, but I couldn’t have imagined how amazing the weekend would turn out.

The weekend started off with a road trip. Myself, Cure Arthritis Ambassador Britt Johnson (@HurtBlogger) and Racing For A Cure maven Aimee Espinoza (@FitAimee_RA) piled into the car for the nearly 500 mile journey. We had the privilege of driving together, discussing everything from their hopes for awareness and research, to their struggles, to who they thought would win the Stanley Cup or the NBA finals.

Arriving at the conference I did not know what to expect or who I might meet, but from the beginning it felt like an extended family. Most of the people had no idea who I was, but that didn’t matter because they welcomed me instantly. The conversation flowed and I learned right from the start what true passion, determination and drive look like.

What struck me was this: here was a group of people who have struggles that many of us could never imagine, yet by coming together it was as if they had left those struggles behind, if even for just a moment. There was a glow amongst the group, an energy of positivity that radiated from the support and understanding they lent each other.


You might think that because this was the first evening together, everyone was putting on a happy face – and if this was my only experience I might have agreed with you. But the next morning came and I continued to be more and more inspired as the weekend moved along. Patients stood in front of each other discussing their issues, but then talked about ways to make those issues better, or how to work through them. They offered each other understanding, a friendly ear, and sometimes even just a hug.

Britt and Aimee led a session on #MotionIsLotion, inspiring patients to push through the difficult days and get moving again. Later that evening they took a large group out to the pool for water aerobics.  Kevin dazzled with his wit and zest for life while keeping everyone on schedule and moving ahead. It was perhaps one of my best experiences as part of the arthritis community.


Britt and Aimee presenting on RA and athletics.

Arthritis Introspective was kind enough to let me say a few words about ANRF to the group on Sunday at lunch. By this point I had gotten a chance to speak with most of the people in attendance, but this was a nice way to remind everyone about ANRF and what we do. During my speech I touched on the importance of research, but I told them how much they inspired me to want to work that much harder to find a cure.

To see such beautiful and amazing people, supporting each other and fighting through adversity, brought tears to my eyes. I actually had to stop speaking and sit down just to keep myself together.

I want the individuals who attended AI’s Gathering Conference to know that everyday I keep a part of that experience with me. I remember your faces, the discussions and the love that was shared that weekend. You are the reason we need to find a cure and you are the reason we will continue to fight.

Lastly, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for inspiring me with your bravery, your courage and your honesty. Each of you helps all of us keep life in perspective in a way that no one else can. I came away from the conference with a tremendous sense of community and a feeling that together we really can beat arthritis!

If you have something positive to add about the conference or the power of being there for each other please leave a comment below.

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