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Off and Running

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Seminole County’s Healthy Kids Running Series program gives local children the chance to stay fit and have fun

The race starts like one at any other track meet. The sprinters get the starting signal and then take off at full speed toward the finish line. But then one runner stops in the middle of the 50-yard dash and bursts into tears. And another runner turns around and runs the other way... toward his mother.

All of this happens amid cheers and enthusiastic displays of encouragement from dozens of supportive family members and volunteers at one of the community’s increasingly popular Healthy Kids Running Series races, held on Sunday afternoons during a five-week period in the spring and fall at Forest City Elementary School in Altamonte Springs.

The runners in this particular race are two- and three-year-old boys, and it’s just one of the many races in the series for boys and girls across a variety of age groups. The nonprofit program, for kids from age two to eighth graders, was started in the fall of 2009 in Pennsylvania as a way to introduce kids to running and help them develop a healthy, active lifestyle.

“Everything we do is about being positive,” says Melissa Bardwell, community coordinator for Seminole County’s Healthy Kids Running Series. “The first week, we talk to the kids and parents about that. It’s not important to be number one. What’s important is to improve each week.”
Melissa, a third-grade math and science teacher at Forest City Elementary, became the first person to bring the Healthy Kids Running Series to Florida back in the spring of 2014. The series at Melissa’s school is still the only one in Seminole County, but there are now 14 Healthy Kids Running Series programs throughout Florida.

Melissa found out about the program in 2013 when she saw photos of her cousin’s young children, ages three and five, participating in a Healthy Kids Running Series race in Pennsylvania.

“I thought this would be great for my own children, who were about the same age,” Melissa says. “I saw nothing in our area for younger children, and I decided to inquire about opening a series in Seminole County.”

Melissa’s cousin helped her get in touch with the Healthy Kids Running Series people. The following spring, about 60 runners showed up for Melissa’s first local race day. When the 2018 spring series kicked off on April 8 this year, 175 eager young runners came out on an unseasonably cool afternoon to give it their all on the Forest City athletic fields.

The kids are divided into groups based on age, with boys and girls competing separately. The lengths of the races range from 50 yards to one mile. Points are given to each child based on their finish, and awards are presented to the boys and girls who compile the most points for the entire five-week series. Participants can check their times online the day after the race.

“I like the fact that it’s not just about winning,” says Amanda Baptist, whose nine-year-old son Robert has been competing in the series since its inception. “It’s about getting healthy and doing something outdoors, instead of playing video games.”

Melissa’s energetic son Derek was just two years old when he ran his first 50-yard Healthy Kids Running Series race in 2014. Now a kindergartner at Forest City Elementary, Derek (6) competes in the quarter mile. Daughter Julia (9) is in her second year competing in the half-mile race for second- and third-grade students.

“My son is extremely athletic, and it was a good way to get his energy out,” Melissa says. “My daughter was not as enthusiastic, but now she really enjoys it. She practices two or three times a week and even asks her dad to take her out and time her.”

All of this has motivated Melissa to become a runner herself (she ran her first 5K in 2015). But it’s the joy Melissa sees on the faces of the young competitors and the stories she hears from their appreciative parents that is most rewarding.

“So many of them tell me about how their kids weren’t physically active and always wanted to stay inside,” says Melissa. “One girl was told she would never walk [because of a low-muscle-tone condition called hypotonia], and now she’s running with Healthy Kids. I started this for my own kids. But when I see how many other children have benefited from it and love it, it makes all the work worthwhile.”

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