More than six months ago, over dinner with friends, I committed to run the Walt Disney World marathon and fundraiser $5,000 for Comfort Zone Camp. Without thinking twice, I had simultaneously agreed to confront two of the largest challenges that I have ever chosen to face. A range of emotions ran through my mind—nervousness, excitement, eagerness, bewilderment, and exhilaration, among others. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into.
Why was I so quick to commit to the daunting challenge of running 26.2 miles? The answer is simple and complicated at the same time; I was running to raise awareness and funds for Comfort Zone Camp—the nation’s largest bereavement camp that transforms the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver. When I was five years old, my father died tragically during a training operation prior to the start of the Persian Gulf War. He was a loving husband, and a father of three. He was just thirty years old.
Following his death, I assumed numerous responsibilities that other children are never forced to take on. Childhood should be carefree, but when a loss occurs, everything changes. I kept many of my emotions bottled up inside, since I did not want to burden my mother with any more stress than she was already carrying. On the outside, I held it together, but internally I struggled with the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and confusion that childhood grief can generate. As a child, I wish that I could have met other children who had also experienced the loss of a parent. Though I did not have a resource of this nature as a child, I am grateful that Comfort Zone Camp exists. As a volunteer, I have the opportunity to support grieving children as they tackle a very challenging journey.
As my commitment to Comfort Zone Camp deepened, I knew that I would one day draw upon my resources to fund-raise on their behalf. When the opportunity to combine two of my greatest loves—Comfort Zone and athletics—through the Disney Marathon presented itself, I was sold. I committed to training for my marathon and raising $5,000, which would send 10 children to Comfort Zone Camp. Initially, I reached out to my family and friends, who know my story and have always been there to support me. Knowing my commitment to the cause, they contributed generously. As months passed, and the race drew closer, I had to think of new and inventive ways to fund-raise. I found myself sharing my story with acquaintances and strangers. Many people knew that I volunteered, but they didn’t know why. As shared my story and spread the message of Comfort Zone, I was met by the stories of others and their personal loss. Listening to others speak, I was reminded that grief does not discriminate, but rather it affects everyone.
Flash forward six months from that initial dinner. As I stood at the race start, surrounded by over 17,000 fellow runners, I found those same emotions racing through my head. I had put in countless hours and miles preparing for this moment; I knew I was ready and yet the task of running 26.2 miles remained daunting. The fireworks sounded signaling the start of my wave and I was off. As I ran, the excitement of race day and the energy of my fellow runners pushed me along. I felt strong and was holding a faster pace than I had planned for during my training. During mile 10 I had the opportunity to run through the Magic Kingdom, and I passed by friends and teammates who had come out to support the runners!. Their cheers of encouragement were both energizing and motivating! A few miles later, I passed the halfway mark, and was still feeling strong.
Then, around mile 18 my quads tightened up and my energy seemed to diminish. I was hitting the wall that so many of my fellow runners had warned me about. To break through that wall, I tried to disassociate myself with the physical pain I was experiencing. In doing so, my mind quickly turned to thoughts of why I was running. I thought of the many campers that I have met through Comfort Zone. I dedicated each of my remaining eight miles to one of the brave, strong little buddies that I had the opportunity to be matched with since I began volunteering. One mile at a time, I recalled the story of an individual camper, the struggles she confronted, and the growth she demonstrated.
For the remainder of the race, I was not alone; I was pushed to the finish line by the strength and resilience of those eight girls.
Running a marathon is a daunting, scary, overwhelming challenge; but it doesn’t compare to the challenges faced by grieving children. I ran Disney to raise awareness for childhood grief. Throughout this journey I have been awestricken by the support and generosity that countless individuals have displayed. I am grateful for the family, friends, and strangers who have stepped up and contributed to my cause. Due to their contributions, 10 grieving children will have the opportunity to be a part of a community where they can grow, share, and heal.
I ran Disney for all of the strong, brave campers that I have met at Comfort Zone Camp and all the ones that I will meet at future camps. I ran Disney in memory of my dad who would have cherished the opportunity to run alongside of me. I look forward to future opportunities that will allow me to raise awareness for grieving children through running! Now, who’s running with me?