Kevin Van Duser could tell something was bothering his student, Ashleigh Baker. Van Duser, the director of sports outreach at First Baptist Academy, had accompanied a group of students from the Naples Baptist Academy on a field trip to Immokalee. A few days after the trip, he could tell Baker was stewing about something.
“It was two years ago that we went to Immokalee to celebrate a holiday with the kids there and I could tell afterwards, something was on her mind. I asked her what was bothering her and she said, ‘I want to do something for the kids,’” remembers Van Duser.
The result of Baker’s desire to help kids in Immokalee was on display last weekend at the second annual Run for Immokalee. More than 200 runners participated in the 5k race, which looped around the First Baptist Church of Naples’ sprawling 94-acre campus.
While there were many things about the Run for Immokalee — the little paper cups of water, an abundance of Lycra — which made it seem like just another charity run, there were a few things that clearly set it a part.
The first difference could be found at the signup table, which was doing a particularly brisk business last Saturday morning. As runners filled out their entry forms and signed their waivers, they handed in their entry with a rather unorthodox form of payment. Instead of paying cash to race, entrants bought their way in with a pair of new children’s shoes.
“We do a lot of these runs, but this is the first time that we know exactly where our money is going,” said Anna Lazzizzera of Naples. “It feels better to know that what we brought today is going directly to the kids.”
Lazzizzera and fellow runner Mark Amato stopped by Target the night before the race to pick out shoes. They’d selected both a pair for a boy and a pair for a girl, and without kids of their own, the two had needed to ask a fellow shopper and mom for sizing advice.
On Saturday morning, their two pairs of shoes joined what was quickly becoming a massive pile of sneakers.
Though Amato, like Lazzizera loved the idea of shoes as an entrance fee, he said the thing he was most impressed by was the race’s organizer. “I’m really impressed. You have 30, 40, 50-year-olds who organize races; to have a kid her age doing it, it’s impressive.”
By all accounts, Baker is not your average seventh grader. She’s soft spoken — when it’s time to kick off the race you can barely hear her on the microphone — but the words she says are worth straining to hear.
“When I was younger, I saw this kid get a piece of glass stuck in his foot when he was running around. He was just a little kid, so it really made an impression on me,” says Baker. A member of her school’s cross country team, Baker knew she had to do something to help kids like the boy who stepped on glass.
“I read this book called ‘Take Your Best Shot, Do Something Bigger Than Yourself,’ by Austin Gutwein, and it really inspired me to do this. Last year was our first year, but this year we have almost twice as many people,” said Baker.
This Sunday, she plans to give the shoes out at an Easter party her church is throwing for the kids of Immokalee. And she says that giving away the shoes is, by far, her favorite part of the whole process.
“Last year a lot of the kids took off the flip-flops or slippers they had been wearing and put on their new shoes immediately. It was really great to see how excited they were.”
Baker’s mother, Jinny Baker, says her daughter did 98 percent of the work organizing the run. “Honestly, she made every phone call, wrote every letter and got turned down (for sponsorships) a lot. She is very organized, she likes to make lists and check things off them.”
Which was something that certainly showed at last Saturday’s event. The race started right on time with every last volunteer in his or her place and ready to go. There were water stops and traffic guards and people keeping time and even a few volunteers just dedicated to yelling out the splits for passing runners.
And while for some the event was about the run, for most it wasn’t. Instead, the morning jog was about helping needy kids and supporting a 12-year-old’s dream of doing something good.
“God gave us this perfect gift of life, so I want to give that back,” said Ashleigh Baker, offering up a dose of inspiration big enough to get even the most running averse excited about breaking a sweat.