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Belonging Beyond Fitness

It’s a cool, wet November morning, one hour before the start of school, and not the kind of environment you want to sit waiting around. But they come, and keep coming. Some are wearing light jackets, others are just toughing it out as their youthful reinforcements come. Suddenly, the doors to Norma J. Paschal Elementary School are unlocked from the inside, and the group, over 80 strong, carry their backpacks, wind through the halls of the campus to the rear of the campus. The students drop their backpacks brimming with books and water bottles, and then they run. Some walk, but most run. And run. And keep on running.

 

The phenomenon known as the Paschal 5k Club, now in its sixth year of existence under the watchful eyes of Kimberly McGrew, PE teacher, has created a sense of belonging that goes beyond physical health. “Anybody can come and walk and talk with their friends,” she said., in her cramped office just outside the school gymnasium. “I like that they like it. They love it! Even if they hate running or fitness, they come out to do it to talk to their friends in the morning.”

 

Some kids gravitate towards running naturally while others have to be persuaded. Joseph Denner was playing club soccer when he ran into Ms. McGrew, who was attending his game. “I said I was gonna run a 5k,” he said. McGrew’s response? “She said, ‘You better!’ something like that. That’s how I got started.” 

 

Eight laps are required to complete the mile, with students stopping after each lap to have McGrew or one of the other Paschal teachers and student aides mark their work. Eight laps during the morning session will equal one tiny plastic foot that can be added as links to necklaces students wear.  Those who complete the monthly 5k or community runs get a big, gaudy foot, with many of the students displaying more than just one of two.

 

Alena McMillen owns two necklaces, a testament to her perseverance but also to the simplest of motivations. She estimates she has completed more than ten 5k races. 

 

“I just wanted to earn more feet,” said the third grader, accompanied by her classmate, Emma Samaniego. “There were these golden feet, and that’s whichever boy and girl that (acquires) the most in Run Club.”

 

“When I was giving those out at a community run other kids were coming up and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t go to our school’ and I would explain that it was the Run Club for our school,’” McGrew said. 

 

Samaniego is caught up in the intensity of competition too. “I figured I should run,” she said. “I started getting  more competitive while Nina was here, and so here I am. Seventeen races.” 

 

An avid runner herself, McGrew has five completed marathons to her credit. Most recently, she finished the 26.2 mile course in the New York City Marathon for the third time in early November. She has also taken part in the Chicago Marathon twice, and hopes to compete in the remaining four World Marathon majors someday: Tokyo, London, Berlin and Tokyo. All this after picking up the sport at the age of 34.

 

“I started when one of my very best college friends wanted me to run a half-marathon with her,” she said. “So I had to train and then I loved it after that.” McGrew now also has 45 completed half-marathons during her career.

 

Other perks for McGrew’s mini-marathoners come from community partnerships her club has been able to establish. Her runners were awarded a pool and pizza party from the City of Schertz Parks & Recreation. Meanwhile, Community First Insurance, Tropical Smoothie, the McDonald’s restaurant off 3009 have all donated merchandise and food. The trophies the runners receive come courtesy of First United Bank.

 

McGrew sees the physical and emotional milestones accomplished with each step her Run Club students take. The strong foundation infused into each participant goes beyond physical and emotional well-being; it promises the possibilities of empowerment that will allow them to conquer challenges set before them. 

 

“This program has given my kids a love for running, a healthy competitive drive to earn the very special golden foot (the most laps from run club for the month) and a good dose of confidence that they can do hard things,” said Stephanie Adams, a Paschal ES parent who has had three sons take an active part in the Run Club, with a two-year old toddler waiting in the wings for his turn.  “We’re grateful parents and glad this program exists and our kids are being driven to try things that challenge them.”

 

One of those obstacles with far-reaching effects is the Pacer test, a timed sprint McGrew incorporates into her PE class, measuring the most laps run at a student’s grade level. It has helped her 5K students break through plateaus and ultimately, run faster. “I tell them, ‘This is good for you. You have to figure out how speed running will work during your running, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon,’” she said. “The biggest thing is to have fun and learn the skills we need to learn without focusing on the actual sport.”

 

Adams can attest the transformative impact. Her son, Jude, currently in second grade, once as a four-year old asked his mother to carry him home one block from their residence while walking together. Today, Jude holds the top spot for second graders at Paschal and Jude also earned a perfect 5k award last year for completing a minimum of 10 5k’s as a first grader.

 

“Coach McGrew has literally grown a love for running in my boy who walked into school hating it!” Adams said,  Almost everyone who has come in contact with the 5K Run Club is not just a follower, but a devotee. “You never know, they might find out they actually like it, too,” Adams added.

 

A collective nod of approval for the program emanates from the teachers and staff at Paschal as well. Run Club is having a metamorphic outcome with some students’ attention span. “I get all my energy out,” said Denner. “So whenever I’m in class, at the end of the day, instead of all that energy being in me…I’m working!”

 

While physical fitness and membership trinkets are all part of the process of camaraderie fostered by the Run Club, they pale in comparison to the sense of identity gained as they  cross the finish line and the life lessons of grit and perseverance that manifest themselves with each ensuing accomplishment.  

 

“We have been doing the 5k feet rewards for three or four years, and some will try every year and when they finally get it they’re just like, ‘Finally! I ran a 5k. I’ve been trying for so long,’” McGrew recounted. “That is the best when you know they’ve been putting in the effort to get it, and it’s just so exciting for both of us.”

 

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