An outstanding local charity, a once-in-a-lifetime fundraising partnership with the New York City Marathon, on its 50th anniversary!.. What could go wrong? COVID went wrong, but that didn’t stop GROW Central Florida from making the most of it.
Colleen Gonzalez, founder of GROW Central Florida, was understandably thrilled when she found out the nonprofit organization had been selected to participate in the Official Charity Partner Program for the prestigious TCS New York City Marathon, which was scheduled for November 1, 2020. Making the honor even more special: Her runners, dubbed Team GROW Healthy Kids, would be among an exclusive group with a collective goal of raising $50 million to mark the marathon’s 50th anniversary.
Colleen, an avid runner who has completed seven marathons, got the idea to apply to the TCS New York City Marathon after one of GROW Central Florida’s board members, Idyllwilde Elementary School principal Lenore Logsdon, ran the race three years ago. The first time Colleen applied to be one of the marathon’s charity partners, GROW was not selected, but she decided to try again.
“Lo and behold, I found out fairly quickly that we were accepted,” says Colleen, who was notified in December 2019. “This was such a big deal for us. It’s an honor to be represented on this huge world stage. I knew they were looking for nonprofits that aligned with the mission of the New York Road Runners [the organization in charge of the NYC Marathon], so to me, that felt like a no-brainer.”
New York Road Runners, established in 1958, has a mission to help and inspire people through running. GROW Central Florida, which Colleen founded in 2015, aims to help develop healthy children by supporting grassroots wellness initiatives including support for local elementary school cross-country programs. GROW also provides shoes for young runners in need.
“When I applied the next time, I focused on how our nonprofit serves these amazing local running programs that are put on by so many amazing volunteers,” says Colleen, a mom of two teens who lives in Altamonte Springs with husband Luis. “We make sure that every volunteer and every school has the resources they need so that no child is left behind.”
The NYC Marathon is one of the world’s six major marathons, growing from 127 runners in its first race in 1970 to more than 50,000 runners in recent years. Colleen and the other selected charity partners had to keep mum about the exciting news until March.
In the meantime, Colleen assembled the team of runners who would tackle the marathon with her. Team GROW Healthy Kids included Kerri Segrest, president of GROW Central Florida and a physical education teacher at Red Bug Elementary; Kaia Forget, Orlando City Soccer Club’s senior director of community relations; Mary Jo Snively, a children’s social worker; Fritz Voltaire, GROW board member and a children’s health and wellness advocate; and Eric Shivers, a GROW board member and local CPA.
In early February, Colleen attended a meeting in New York City for the marathon’s more than 300 charity partners.
“I realized how special our place at the table was,” Colleen says of the one-day event. “I was in a room full of all these other nonprofits, but [almost] everyone around me was based in New York. There was one person from Boston, but I was the only one from Florida.”
Colleen says the meeting was very inspirational.
“They were telling us what to expect when it came to November 1 and their vision for this wonderful event that was going to lift up all of New York City,” Colleen says.
And then, just a few weeks later, the country was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. By early summer, the NYC Marathon was canceled.
Really, 2020?... Really?
Colleen had already set up a fundraising website (TeamGrowHealthyKids.com), but with the marathon itself in limbo and all the momentum of its collective $50 million fundraising goal now gone, GROW knew it had to come up with a new plan to engage donors – and fast.
“We came to the conclusion that we were going to have to do 26.2 miles our way,” Colleen says. “What we did – along with other nonprofits that were supposed to run New York – is we asked our runners to just get their 26 miles in the week before the marathon [and fundraise for it as best they could.] Talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, and tell them about our mission and our vision. Tell them what we do.”
The strategy worked. By early November, despite the marathon’s cancellation, Team GROW Healthy Kids raised almost $15,000. That money will go a long way for GROW Central Florida, allowing the nonprofit group to continue to support Seminole County’s elementary school cross-country teams, provide running shoes for underserved kids, beautify playgrounds at schools in low-resource areas, and continue outreach initiatives like its support for law enforcement.
In addition to all the good that Colleen and her 180 GROW Central Florida volunteers continue to do for the local community, she and her running team are also looking forward to eventually running the NYC Marathon in the Big Apple.
“The idea of going through the five boroughs in New York City is incredibly exciting, because it’s going to be a historic race,” Colleen says. “We don’t know when it will be yet. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
To learn more, visit GROWCentralFlorida.org and TeamGROWHealthyKids.com.
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