After doing a ton of runDisney runs over the past few years, I started to notice the same sponsors over and over at all of the races. Cigna has been one of the major race sponsors for awhile so when I heard about some of the healthy initiatives they're trying to push through their Cigna Foundation, I wanted to know some more.
The Cigna Foundation makes grants to charitable organizations that work in innovative ways to achieve one or more of these goals:
- Promote Wellness—enabling individuals and families to take responsibility for their own health
- Expand Opportunities—making health information and services available to all
- Develop Leaders—leveraging education and life experiences to promote personal and professional growth
- Embrace Communities—encouraging shared approaches to issues of local and global concern
One of the organizations that they work with is the Students Run Philly Style (SRPS). SRPS is a program in Philadelphia that offers marathon training to help youth succeed in life. They connect students with adult mentors who help them accomplish goals beyond their dreams, including the completion of a marathon. Since 2004, Students Run Philly Style has served over 2500 students, ages 12-18, from neighborhoods across Philadelphia.
Over 200 adult mentors, called Running Leaders from over 50 schools, recreation centers and community leaders will host Students Run Philly Style teams this year. Students train side-by-side with their mentors three days a week from March to November. Along the way, they complete eight road races, and engage in leadership and character development.
I had a chance to talk with one of the Running Leaders, Cedric Edwards, and pick his brain a little bit about the program and how his experience has been going. Ced started with the program in 2008 by chance. He had seen an email come through at Cigna asking for volunteers with a mentoring program. It sounded interesting and he had been wanting to get back in shape so this was a perfect opportunity.
While attending one of the presentations about SRPS, he listened to a story about a girl who joined the program. Prior to SRPS, she was quiet and slightly overweight. The program accepted her without any hesitation or requirements and 9 months later, she finished her first half marathon and was a changed person.
The program offers a ton of activities that keep the students engaged. From the very first kick-off meeting every year, the students learn about courage, effort, and respect. The leaders try to keep the students engaged after they break into teams later in the year when they form their smaller training sessions.
In Ced's first year, many of the students were veterans of the program and they all learned to help each other. As the season went on, the students were mentoring Ced with running while Ced helped them with the other aspects of the program. With the help of the students, Ced ran his first marathon in 2008!
While Ced is technically the mentor from the students, I asked if there was anything that he has learned from the experience, and from the students. Ced said that no matter what's happening, the program and students help keep each other motivated. Everyone has commitments, whether it's work or school, but they all still show up for training three times per week out of respect for each other and the program. They all realize that it works both ways.
Out of the many success stories from the program, Ced talked about one student in particular. The student joined the program 4 years ago at age 12 and has just completed his first marathon this year (at age 16). When first joining the program, he was slightly overweight and always said that he would never and could never run a marathon. Yet he showed up at every single practice and was always motivated to keep going. At their recent 20 mile qualifier run, the student and Ced ran together and he never gave up. When he finally finished the marathon, his face was priceless and he turned and thanked Ced for his help. Just seeing the change over the years has been rewarding. The social and physical changes in many of the students is amazing and shows what a positive impact the program has on everyone that participates.
Another positive aspect of the program has been the family involvement. SRPS encourages parents and family members to get involved with the program and has caused many families to run their first races together as well! Having family and friends at events through volunteering or just cheering brings together the community and helps the students succeed.
So what does this all have to do with runDisney?
For the second year in a row, SRPS has is bringing 6 students to Walt Disney World to participate in Marathon Weekend! To be selected to come to Florida, the students all entered an essay contest where they had to discuss what running means to them as well as what they would do with the opportunity if selected. All the students have been running regularly and have ran either a half or full marathon in the past but never participated in a runDisney race.
Talking with Ced, I could tell it was an exciting event for both he and the students. When asked what he looked forward to the most, we discussed the experience that this provides the students. All of the participants usually only run in the Philly area so this will be the first time out of the tri-state. As most of my readers know, runDisney isn't like other races. It's a totally different crowd, different atmosphere, and a totally different experience.
** All photos courtesy of Cigna and/or SRPS **