April 05, 2020

Article at GuelphMercury.com

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Program in Guelph is life-changing for many

'They’re not getting over the hurdles, they’re knocking down the hurdles'

Note: Start2Finish was five months into the 2019/20 program before the coronavirus pandemic forced closure. Start2Finish is now providing an online exercise portal for kids to access during this time along with Story Time — instagram.com. Also, check out this link.

The energy is high in the Brant Avenue Public School Gym on a Thursday afternoon at the start of March.

There are lines of vocal kids with one from each running to pick up a piece of paper with a letter on it for the Word Relay. Teammates eventually compile the letters and make as many words as they can, utilizing their brains and legs in the process.

It’s one of the most popular games among the young Start2Finish participants. And just a snapshot of the Running & Reading Club work they will complete over the course of the 30-week program, all leading up to a big 5K race day in Toronto.

For many of the kids, Start2Finish has been life-changing.

“My first year was a little hard at the beginning but I started getting faster and got more stamina,” says 13-year-old Allen Nolan, a junior coach who is a four-year veteran of the program and reigning champion in the 5K 2019 Running & Reading Challenge.

“I got better and better. And the reading was helpful.”

Allen shares much in common with the almost 200 Guelph participants spread across five locations: Brant Avenue, Gateway, Westwood, Willow, and John Galt. These kids aged six to 11 need a boost and Start2Finish, a national program emphasizing fitness and literacy, provides it.

“It’s really cool to see how they grow,” says Start2Finish regional manager Jaime Drohan-Luttmann. “They develop so quickly.”

Start2Finish is celebrating its 20th year and 14th in Guelph. The free program, which won the Guelph Chamber of Commerce Community Spirit Award in 2019, was created by former CFL player Brian Warren, a Grey Cup winner with the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts.

The Arizona native learned to give back from his devoted stay-at-home mom and his father, a NASA employee, who preached that from chaos comes order. When Warren was done playing, he wanted to impact kids. He knew the cycle of poverty could be broken by nurturing their minds and bodies through a lasting program that’s longevity is evident in both the name and logo.

“I wanted to develop a process where we could help balance the playing field,” says the passionate founder.

“I didn’t want to just talk about the challenges children were facing living in poverty. I wanted to fix them.”

Warren says that poverty does not equate to stupidity. He knows the stats about the sedentary nature of children. The simple gesture of providing a backpack, snacks, programming, and a new pair of running shoes is the foundation. But for kids hard-wired to connect, the relationships mean everything.

“We’re building a cycle of success,” says Warren.

“No kid has gone wrong when someone has genuinely cared about them. If we give them the tools to succeed – literature, grade-specific books, a pair of running shoes – they can use their mind and break the barriers.

“They’re not getting over the hurdles, they’re knocking down the hurdles.”

Away from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guelph program runs one day a week, beginning in October and ending in May. Drohan-Luttmann says a typical day starts with a run, inside or out depending on weather, with kids increasing distance every week. In the gym, they get a popsicle stick for every lap to the halfway point and then return a stick for every additional lap completed.

“It gives them a tangible idea of how much they’ve run,” says Drohan-Luttmann.

“It keeps them motivated. To get kids to run circles for 20 minutes takes some pretty stellar volunteers.”

It’s then on to strength-building like mountain climbers, squats, and push-ups before an active game, like Word Relay, and then a healthy snack break prior to Word of the Day. There is a new word every week and on race day, runners are expected to know all 30, with definitions. The programming day ends with group reading.

Ahead of the pandemic, the plan was to use the local Run4Change in Royal City Park on May 2 as a tune up (and fundraiser) before busing to the Toronto race.

Ten-year-old Sydney Foster is in her second year. The Grade 4 student loves it, thanks in part to her supportive friends Harnoor and Adessa.

“I like how you get exercise and everyone is nice,” she says. “My friends help me and make me happy.

“When I’m upset, they come to me and say, ‘It’s O.K., don’t cry.’ And they pat my back.”

Grade 6 student Megan Lalonde was nervous when she began Start2Finish four years ago. She had trouble reading and found herself in trouble.

“Running and reading has helped me a lot,” says the 11-year-old, now a voracious reader who is appreciative of the relationships she’s made.

“Before I started coming, I was very sassy. And since I joined, I’m not so sassy.”

Drohan-Luttmann adds that Guelph’s Start2Finish programming is unique. The familiar volunteer core is amazing. And on race day, it’s not five schools competing – it’s one group together.

“We’ve really built a community and a culture,” she says.

For more information on the program, volunteering or donating, visit start2finishonline.org..