Berni Lynn-Fischer first heard about Marathon Kids from her friend Cynthia Curb. Curb was a physical education coach at the A.E. Butler Intermediate School in Quinlan, Texas, a small town about 40 miles east of Dallas. Lynn-Fischer and Curb initially met at the school’s workout center, which was available to any adult in the school district, thanks to Quinlan ISD administrators who were concerned about the mental and physical health of the children and the community at large.
Marathon Kids Running Club
Their concern was valid: A Quinlan sixth-grader had committed suicide a few years earlier, and other incidents had also occurred. The Special Education/Special Events Director, who had a background in running, had the idea to introduce children at vulnerable ages to a program that could help relieve tension while building confidence and camaraderie without high equipment costs.
Curb registered for Marathon Kids. “My granddaughter was a part of it,” Lynn-Fischer says, “and she would go out in her backyard and run laps. The program was at the classroom level at the time, and I remember how proud she was of the t-shirt she earned.”
Giving Back Through Volunteering
Then the program director called for volunteers to help out with an after-school running club for fourth- through sixth-graders. Lynn-Fischer, who was retired at this point, had been running for about five years. “Because I enjoy running, I felt I could relate to this and it was a way I could give back. I have 12 grandchildren, each with a potential to become caught up in the hazards of daily life. Ten of my grandkids live in other states, but the two who live in Quinlan did join, and with that first group of kids, I became known as Grandma Berni. Now, six years later, that is still my name.”
The original director eventually left the school district, and Cynthia Curb took over the Marathon Kids running program, bringing it to the Butler Intermediate School. She and Grandma Berni have been running it together for the past four years.
“The kids keep me coming back,” Grandma Berni says. “I love this age! I’m short, and they tend to relate to me whether they are shorter or taller. Their energy lifts my spirits! Their need to see a fresh face is endearing and keeps me interested.” Mostly, she says, “I just like the kids to have a happy part in their day, because so many don’t.”
Grandma Berni enjoys helping keep the kids on track. “This is our biggest year so far, with a total of about 50 kids in the club. We make sure these members are serious, and we do not let them drop in and out at will. Our running program consists of monthly goals, serious miles run and pointers to keep them in good form.”
Setting Goals and Celebrating Success
Each club member has a folder in which they keep track of their miles along with new, realistic goals each month. The group finds fun ways to keep members engaged, such as choosing a city, calculating its distance from Quinlan and trying to reach the destination by totaling up their miles together; or giving out Runner of the Month awards for achievements like reaching mileage goals, showing good participation and attendance, or respecting, helping and encouraging other club members. “We also plan field trips,” says Grandma Berni, “either a run or a track meet somewhere outside of Quinlan. The Butler Marathon Kids Running Club has become the most popular after-school club.”
They also allow the students to run at home and count those miles toward their goals. “If a family member sends us a note verifying that their child ran a specific number of miles at home,” Grandma Berni says, “or an organized run or even a hike, then we allow this to be logged into their folder.”
Run Club members are encouraged to participate in local organized runs, such as color runs and holiday runs. “If a family member can get the child to the event,” says Grandma Berni, “we make sure we are there to run with them.”
Providing for Run Club Members in Need
The running club also fills other needs in the community. From the beginning of her involvement with Marathon Kids, Grandma Berni noticed that some of the Run Club kids were “limping” along. “The condition of the shoes was my biggest concern,” she recalls. “Most of our kids come from struggling families, and their shoes are either hand-me-downs or well worn because they are in fashion.”
When she noticed two Run Club members wearing shoes that she, herself, had once donated to a local church’s clothing drive, Grandma Berni and her daughter and granddaughters began donating their own shoes to the club. The extra shoes are kept on hand for Run Club students who need them. “Last season I collected two bags of boys’ shoes,” she recalls, “and dumped them on the gym floor for our running club boys to take. One boy was so thrilled — he said, ‘Now no one will laugh at my shoes.’”
Teachers, administrators and community members also help support Run Club members, donating shoes and other supplies or covering the cost of fun-run entry fees and T-shirts when needed. “We let the kids know,” Grandma Berni says, “that should the event fee be too much for the family to afford, we will make sure that it gets paid for if they can get there.”
Making a Difference
As for long-reaching effects of the Marathon Kids Running Club, Grandma Berni says she has recently begun to see them. “At the Homecoming football game two weeks ago, a tall young man came up to me and said, ‘You are Grandma Berni! I just want you to know that I still run and love doing track!’” Her friend Cynthia Curb also ran into an eighth-grade girl who thanked Curb for teaching her running skills; without Run Club, the girl said, she would never have tried out for track or realized how much she loved the sport.
As for Grandma Berni’s biggest challenge? “As I age — I’m nearly 70 — I worry about losing my ability to help kids to run, love it and use it to help themselves and others. I will do this for as long as I am able, and I don’t see an end soon.”