When Lory Crofts showed up at Sugarhouse Park Saturday morning with her two small children to get some exercise, she was surprised to see several thousand Salt Lake-area residents warming up for a walk.

But not just any walk. They were assembled at the park for the 9 a.m. start of the March of Dimes' annual WalkAmerica, which was expected to raise $500,000 towards fighting birth defects."I joined in," Crofts said as she steered her children's stroller up a steep hill. "My husband and I consider ourselves fortunate to have two perfect kids."

The Crofts children, 7-month-old Trystin and 3 1/2-year-old Tysen, had plenty of company. Many of the estimated 3,500 participants were also in strollers or toddled beside their parents - and their pets.

Mike and Shelia Johnson of West Jordan, though, didn't realize they could bring their children to the fund-raising event. Next year the whole family will walk, the Johnsons said.

"I have seven kids. They're all healthy. We'd like everyone else to have the same experience," Mike Johnson said. Along with his wife, he walked with other employees of OEC Medical Systems, an X-ray machine manufacturer.

Companies large and small sponsored their employees in the walk, some contributing as much as $10,000 toward March of Dimes research and prevention programs.

Diane Stadler, who sits on the executive committee of the March of Dimes Greater Utah Chapter's board of directors, said organizers were happy with Saturday's turnout.

"I think they were really surprised and pleased it didn't rain at all," said Stadler, a nutrition professor in the University of Utah's college of health. "The walk went well."

Saturday's walk was one of nine scheduled in Utah. The start and finish were at Sugarhouse Park, but the six-mile-plus route passed behind Hogle Zoo before circling back down 1300 East.

More than 6,500 Utahns were expected to participate statewide. Since the first WalkAmerica was organized 28 years ago, nearly $1 billion has been raised nationwide.