Bekah S. McNeel

Most readers are familiar with the idea of running events benefiting a worthy cause. Many have, at some point or another, paid upwards of $30 to run five kilometers through Brackenridge Park, along the River Walk, or in some other familiar stretch of the city.

On Saturday, the 2nd Annual Bowden Fun Run, a 5K race through historic Dignowity Hill, also will support a good cause, but organizers aren’t asking for money.

The race is free.

Participation is the key to show students at Bowden Elementary, Washington Elementary, Pershing Elementary, and Wheatley Middle School that their community and city care.

The event, which starts at 8:30 a.m. from the school parking lot (come early to register), is not a glamorous affair with finisher medals and corporate signage. It’s a grassroots event promoting healthy living and family involvement in the lives of local kids. Participants foster a spirit of support and encouragement as kids ages five and up take on the 3.2 mile course, running, walking, and ultimately crossing the finish line feeling like they have accomplished something monumental.

"Finish Line" slide from Bowden's Fun Run presentation.
“Finish Line” slide from Bowden’s Fun Run presentation.

Dignowity Hill is a great place to run (it would be even better if the City would actively address the stray dog issue in its inner city neighborhoods…). The Hays Street Bridge, Lockwood Park, Dignowity Park, and the best view of downtown in the entire city make it a great course.

The race itself showcases an even more notable Dignowity Hill asset, a thriving community of neighbors, families, public servants, and businesses who rally around kids, community, and health. The major partners in the Bowden Fun Run: Eastside Promise Neighborhood, Select Federal Credit Union, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, H-E-B, the San Antonio Police Department, Café College, TxDot, Bexar County Constable’s Department Precinct 4, and the SAISD Explorers.

Informational booths from a wide array of businesses and community services will be set up on school grounds. The entire event will have a clear vibe: thriving. Intellectually, physically, emotionally. Running has long been associated with wellness, both physical and mental, and the atmosphere of “race day” is famous for its positive energy.

Pre-race calisthenics at 2012 Bowden Fun Run
Pre-race calisthenics at 2012 Bowden Fun Run

The kids get have another experience that any runner will appreciate: Pinning on a bib. It’s hard to explain the pride that goes along with wearing a paper number across your stomach, but every marathoner I know holds on to their most special bibs. Whether it was their first, best, or latest. Participants in last year’s Bowden Fun Run responded enthusiastically, proudly donning their race numbers like medals already won.

It’s thanks to the efforts of one man, Bowden’s Assistant Principal Gregorio Velazquez, that inner city kids are experiencing the highs of running culture.

When Velazquez arrived at Bowden Elementary School in the fall of 2010, he immediately began looking for ways to connect with students and families of Dignowity Hill, Wheatley Courts, and other neighborhoods served by the Eastside elementary school. It didn’t take long to figure out the magic word: Basketball. The San Antonio Spurs are neighborhood heroes, and a third grade basketball club was a smashing success.

“Parents wanted to cheer for something positive in the school,” Velazquez said.

Originally intended to incentivize good grades and high attendance, the basketball club soon revealed another, more poignant strength. Parental involvement is a wish-list item for many inner-city schools. At Bowden, by the second basketball club practice, parents were setting up lawn chairs in the gym to cheer on their kids. The club culminated in one game, with Velazquez coaching both teams, servings as referee, ball boy, and time-keeper.

“This is not Lakers vs. Spurs,” Velazquez reminded parents, “We cheer for every basket, regardless who makes it.”

Watching the self-confidence and excitement of the third grade ball players, Velazquez knew that he had tapped into something fundamental. But he was only one man, and there were no funds or mechanisms to scale the program. Select Federal Credit Union had backed the team, but to bring the program to the entire school would require manpower and financial assistance. Asking the players to pay a club fee was out of the question.

“The number one question asked by the students was, ‘How much is it going to cost?’ ” Velazquez remembers.

Not long after that, Velazquez and his wife, an administrator at Thomas Jefferson High School, participated in the Jefferson High School 5K. Running around Woodlawn Lake and Monticello Park, Velazquez had an idea.

“If Thomas Jefferson [High School] can do this, Dignowity Hill can do this!” Velazquez said.

In the spring of 2012, the Bowden Two Mile Fun Run was born. With support from Select Federal Credit Union, and the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, HEB and TxDot and the support of the Roly Poly’s Bicycle Club, the inaugural run celebrated the end of the 2011-2012 school year, and included 344 students from Bowden and the community. Many of the student convinced parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins to come out and run with them. Community members came out for the event as well to run, walk, or cheer.

Taranesha Dorn and Victor Luna are ready to race!
Taranesha Dorn and Victor Luna are ready to race!

This year, they’ve expanded the run to include the elementary and middle schools of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood footprint. Last year’s second place runner was fourth-grader Taranesha Dorn. Third place went to third-grader Victor Luna. Now in 5th and 4th grade respectively, Dorn and Luna are aiming to improve their performance. They aren’t worried about the influx of runners from other schools. Confidence radiates from their smiles when they talk about the experience of the race.

Both students take particular pride in the fact that even when they were tired, they never stopped running. Perseverance, grit, and confidence. Just three of the known benefits that Velazquez and others would like to see running rampant on the campuses of local schools.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.