Michele Rusnak has dedicated the last quarter-century of her career to getting kids active with Marathon Kids. Consider making a donation in her name to sustain the future of free physical activity programming for children.
As someone who grew up in Austin, went to college in Austin, and taught PE in Austin ISD schools for 14 years before transitioning to her current position as Health and Physical Education Supervisor for the district, Michele Rusnak knows this town. And she knows physical education.
“Here I am, 16 years later, loving it still,” she says of her position as PE Supervisor for the district, and of her career in general. “I’m so incredibly proud of what we have done in this city for health and physical education.”
One initiative she spearheaded as PE Supervisor was to adopt Marathon Kids in all elementary schools across the district. She’d long been involved with the organization by that point, having first learned about it when it was founded in 1995, when she’d been a teacher for just a handful of years. “We had a little club as PE teachers, and we’d get together; and we had little running clubs, but nothing big or formal.” When she heard about Marathon Kids, “I knew it was going to be big”—and the more she learned about it, the more she knew she wanted to be involved.
“I loved that Kay [Morris, the founder of Marathon Kids] listened to PE teachers to get their ideas about how to make it happen. We all learned a lot over the first few years, and each year we got better and better. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Rusnak repeatedly emphasizes the community aspect of the success of Marathon Kids. When she discusses the organization, she is quick to clarify, “It’s not a ‘me’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing.” When asked about unforgettable moments from the early years, she says, “This program is all about kids, but it’s about the teachers as well. When you see teachers get excited about a program, you know it’s going to be successful.” In her view, that has been key to the organization’s sustainability.
When she first became an administrator 16 years ago and adopted Marathon Kids programming districtwide, Rusnak remembers making tweaks to the program over the course of the first few years as they determined what worked best in schools. “The teachers were always willing to go with it,” she says, “because they knew Marathon Kids meant something to our community and our families.”
She reminisces about the palpable excitement in the air when the organization would host kickoff ceremonies and end-of-season celebrations at UT or Toney Burger Center. “The families would come,” she remembers, “and we’d be giving high fives to everybody, and the kids were coming through with their families and finishing and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I did it!’ And the kids were like ‘Let’s do one more!’ That combination of really getting kids excited about learning but also bringing in the family” was something she’ll never forget.
The Soul of Austin Is Inherent in Marathon Kids
Marathon Kids has grown over the past 25 years from a small, locally-based nonprofit to one with a national reach, with programming in schools across the country. Still, Rusnak credits part of the nonprofit’s success and sustainability to the soul and essence of Austin itself.
From the organization’s beginning, many local companies and sponsors wanted to get involved, and the ongoing, high level of community interest never surprised Rusnak in the least. “I grew up running or walking around Town Lake, and I know we’re a running community,” she says. “Running is that lifelong activity – it’s free, it’s easy, you can go whenever you want. So to see the adults [get involved] and the partnership that came alive—it’s just Austin. That’s what has made this program grow.”
The other essential element that made Marathon Kids a success? The fact that it was built on walking and running, which are available to everyone, regardless of background or ability. “You go through as an educator,” Rusnak says, “and you’re always talking about lifelong fitness and health, and what just walking and jogging can do for your heart. If there’s just one thing you can do, do that. And Marathon Kids really provided that foundation for kids. For 25 years now, we have Austinites that have grown up with this program, and you’ll see them out on Town Lake continuing to run.”
Marathon Kids Is an Austin Icon
When asked about how she feels about the impact Marathon Kids has made, Rusnak points to “what we have done as a PE department—with all the incredible leadership, including my specialists, Pat Warner and Jason Schafer, and what the teachers have done and how they’ve promoted this as well, because they believe in it. If it weren’t a good program with a great foundation over the years, it would have never made it. It’s an icon here.”
She believes it’s also about the message that PE teachers can deliver to students. “This is part of our curriculum. Running, staying in shape, fitness, cardiovascular endurance. When we can do that, and have something really fun and rewarding to provide for the kids, and for the families to see the excitement in the kids and the finishing miles and some of the other events we’ve hosted over the years—it’s been a no-brainer.”
Looking forward to the next 25 years, Rusnak hopes the sustainability of the program continues. “With the new digital platform,” she says—referring to the new physical activity tracking app and digital reporting platform, Marathon Kids Connect, “it’s going to be so much easier for the teachers, and for the classroom teachers and the parents as well. Everybody gets to see the results. It used to be just the PE teachers that got to see the results; now more people get to see it, including the principal, so I think that piece and the sustainability will make the organization that much stronger.”
To keep Marathon Kids free for all kids, please consider a donation to Michele’s 25th Anniversary fundraiser.