Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, named for Alex Scott, who received a diagnosis of brain cancer at age 4 and died when she was 8, sponsors and supports races for family members of kids with cancer. The races help family members cope with stress as well as raise money for research. The organization has raised $60 million and holds a top ranking from Charity Navigator, which vets charities.
To help runners, it has hired trainers and has found that the benefits go far beyond raising funds. “Especially for parents of kids with cancer, running gives them an outlet for their pent-up energy and anger,” says Jay Scott, Alex’s father, a runner and co-executive director of the foundation.
Achilles International partners able-bodied runners with disabled ones. Katie Sweeney, 53, and her son, Dusty, 15, who is autistic, run every week in New York’s Central Park with volunteer Paula Sen, 25.
Sweeney ticks off a list of benefits the program has brought her and her son, including the opportunity to share her passion for running, something she hadn’t even dreamed of before she was introduced to Achilles. She says other advantages for Dusty include increased fitness — important because some of the drugs he takes can lead to weight gain — and the “proud face” that Dusty, who has low communications skills, sports when he’s running.
Achilles, founded by Dick Traum, who lost his leg in a car accident and was the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon, is developing a Boston chapter for victims of the marathon bombing there who may want to use running as part of their recovery.
James Rimmer, 57, the head of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says it’s not surprising that groups use running to fix or ameliorate life problems. Regular running works as “an anchor to a life that could be, at times, in disarray,” he says, “but when you’ve got that one anchor every single day, when you accomplish that one goal, there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment.”
Which makes Walter Barrera, 31, a perfect case study. Almost since he began running competitively three years ago, Barrera has had a serious goal: competing in a 100-mile race that he hopes to complete in no more than 36 hours. Barrera did much of his initial training with Back on My Feet while living in a homeless shelter in Washington.
He finds the prospect of the race exciting rather than daunting. After all, he has faced tougher challenges. Drugs and alcohol use cost him his job and his home. He now lives in his own apartment and works at a running store, changes that he credits directly to running and Back on My Feet. Eventually, he’d like to become a race-event planner.
“When I signed up with Back on My Feet I never thought I’d get a life even better than the one I’d had before.”