As a rare genetic disease takes away his control of his body, former Johnstown police officer Larry A. Woodard is raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital with his Pencil Bottle Challenge.
“My motto is, ‘If I can do it, then I’m going to do it,’ ” he said.
He launched the challenge this week.
Woodard, who turns 45 on Monday, recently developed porphyria, which is attacking his nervous system. The disorder’s damaging effect on his body led him to make the decision in December to resign from his career as a Johnstown police officer, his dream job that he held for six years, he said.
He was the only officer of color in the department at the time of his resignation and one of the few minority officers in Johnstown’s history.
The months since he’s resigned have been difficult for him and his family in many ways, he said. Doctors are still determining whether he may also have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or primary lateral sclerosis (PLS), he said.
But he’s never been one to sit around and do nothing.
He calls his St. Jude fundraising event G.I.F.T (Giving is Forever Treasured). And to draw attention to it, he’s made the Pencil Bottle Challenge.
Woodard posted a video on YouTube that demonstrates the challenge, and it shows viewers a link to an online St. Jude account where they can donate – http://events.stjude.org/pencilbottlechallenge.
He said he wants to send $1 million to St. Jude for children’s cancer research.
It’s no easy task to bounce a pencil, eraser-side down, off a hard surface so that it flips into an open water bottle. It took him 150 attempts before he was successful, he said.
“I chose to do this for St. Jude because I’m suffering from an illness,” he said. “I’m dying. There’s no beating around the bush on that one. And it burns my heart to see kids suffer. If I’m suffering like this, I know that there’s a 4-year-old, 5-year old, or 8-year old suffering.”
He and his wife, Kristin, have four children, ages 2, 9,11 and 26.
“I don’t keep anything from my kids,” he said. “They know there’s a possibility that I might not be here next year or two years from now.”
The Woodards also lost a daughter from Trisomy 18 in 2015 before birth.
“I know what it feels like to lose a child,” he said, holding back tears. “If a donation can help give more time to a family ... and if I can do it, then I’ll do it.”
The porphyria he suffers from manifests itself more more intensely some days than others, he said. He showed the tremor of his hands as he held them out during an interview at his home in Moxham.
On bad days, he has seizures and can’t perform simple tasks that most people take for granted, he said.
He first noticed symptoms in November 2018, with intense headaches and abdominal pain. Then, he said, one day he felt his head involuntarily wobble.
Lately, his pencil bottle challenge has been a way to keep his mind and body busy, he said.
Woodard encourages people to share his video and film themselves doing the challenge, he said. At the end of his video, he calls out a list of celebrities to take the challenge. He hopes the challenge becomes as viral as other recent challenges that have spread through social media.
Those who know Woodard call him Tony, from his middle name, Anthony.
Woodard was a police officer for 10 years, including the last six with the Johnstown Police Department. Retired Sgt. Charles Jeffers was Woodard’s supervisor.
“He was a unique police officer,” Jeffers said. “He was very caring and honest. His reports were outstanding, always done with detail. He was always prepared when he was at court. He kept himself in order, and his compassion for people was outstanding. He looked into his job more than being a person in a uniform and carrying a weapon.”
Jeffers is Black and Woodard is biracial. Both men were among fewer than 10 non-white officers believed to have ever served in the Johnstown Police Department.
Jeffers retired in 2018 after 47 years.
“At one point, after I retired, he was the only minority officer left there,” Jeffers said. “It was a loss for the city police department when he left.”
Jeffers said Woodard had a way of handling situations.
“The people around him highly respected him,” Jeffers said. “If he had to make an arrest, then he did it. But if there were times he could walk into a situation, a domestic call, and talk to both parties and resolve it without arresting anybody, then that’s what he’d do, as long as there was no physical contact.”
Woodard was good at showing another side of what it means to be a police officer, said Steven Crater, who has known Woodard for 10 years, since they worked together as police officers at the Altoona hospital. Crater is currently a police officer in York County.
“When we worked at the hospital, we dealt with a lot of mental health patients,” Crater said. “A lot of them just want heard. Tony was good at that. He had more life experience. He know how to relate better.”
Woodard said he grew up in a poor family. He was clipping hedges and shoveling walks for money at age 8, he said.
“I’ve been the kid who has no electricity,” he said. “I’ve been the kid who didn’t know where his next meal is coming from. I raised my siblings, carried the weight.”
Woodard’s motivation to become a police officer and his disposition toward helping people stems from experiencing the kindness people showed to his family growing up.
“There’s nice people out there,” he said. “They came to us and gave us food, gave us clothes, gave us a place to stay. People showed their kindness and paid it forward. That’s what I’m trying to do is pay it forward.”
Woodard often stops to help homeless people when he sees them in his neighborhood. And in recent years, Woodard said, he and he and his wife and children started a tradition of giving gifts to charities instead of receiving gifts during holidays.
Over the years, Johnstown police officer Brian Stevens has come to know Woodard and his family. He said they’ve always been giving their time and material goods to charities.
“He does a lot in the community,” he said, “and this challenge he’s doing shows how unique he is. He’s dealing with his own health issues, and he’s going out to raise money for a totally different, good cause.”