NEW BEDFORD — The minutes are ticking down to the start of the 34th New Bedford Half Marathon and no one is more excited than Mary Hodgson, CEO of the Schwartz Center, a Dartmouth-based school for the developmentally disabled.
Nine children from the school, ranging in age from 2-year-old Molly Menard to 18-year-old Trey Rivet, will be lining up to race alongside all of the other runners Sunday.
“It started out as just a dream but now it’s about to happen,” Hodgson said.
In partnership with Citizens-Union Savings Bank, the center assembled 80 volunteers from the community to push the children around the course in jogging carriages.
“We’ve had a couple of training sessions to get the kids used to it and to get the runners used to pushing them,” Hodgson said.
The children were evaluated to ensure they can withstand the challenge, and the initial response has been great, she said.
“A number of the children communicate via sign language. If they tap their fingers together it means ‘more.’ When the runners slowed down the first day we practiced, the kids were doing it because they wanted more.”
The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, who stage the race, welcomed the kids’ participation, according to race co-director Dan McCarthy.
“The race is a celebration of the best New Bedford. What could be better than able-bodied athletes helping those who would never have been able to participate on their own?” he said.
Mindy Menard of East Taunton will run part of the course pushing her 2-year-old daughter, Molly. “I’m not a runner but I have been training for eight weeks,” she said. “Next year, I hope to do the whole thing.”
Cheryl Rowe, of West Wareham, whose 10-year-old son Jared Rousseau has been going to the Schwartz Center for five years, said the race will be a big occasion for Jared. “He loves interacting with people. He’s very social, so this is a perfect opportunity. When they thought of this, he was the first child they called.”
Runner Lynn Poyant of New Bedford has volunteered her services. “I have run the half marathon for myself, so I thought it would be more meaningful to do this,” she said. “I think it’s great for the kids. I’m glad the Schwartz Center is part of our community. The work they do is phenomenal.”
Poyant’s team includes her sister, Monique Poyant, and cousin, David Reis, and they intend to complete the entire 13-mile course.
“David is great because he already pushes a triple stroller with his daughters in it, so he’s used to this,” she said.
Maribeth Moore, whose son Jeremy Charron, 5, has cerebral palsy, said he is thrilled to be part of the race.
“He’s excited. We’ve been talking about it at home,” the Freetown resident said. “He’s very verbal and loves to be out and about. He’ll get to see the whole city and it will be a great experience for him.”
Brian Tjersland of Dartmouth, a marathon runner, also plans to do the whole race. “I pushed my kids when they were young but I never ran with them,” he said. “I’ve been practicing with Trey. It’s different. It changes your stride,” he said. “He is 125 pounds. I hope someone is there to help with the hills on Hathaway Road.”
Although this is the first time the Schwartz Center is participating in the half marathon, it has a long association with the race, according to human resources director Carol Almeida.
“We’ve been handing out water on Rockdale Ave. as long as I can remember,” she said. “We’ve always been proud to see Team Hoyt (the famed father/son team from the Boston Marathon), so to have our own team is exciting.”
Almeida also paid tribute to the men and women who have agreed to push the children.
“Runners are generally competitive people. But this year many have put aside worrying about what place they finish to help these kids, and I think that’s wonderful.”
This story by Don Cuddy first appeared in the New Bedford Standard Times on March 18th here: