I got my first byline at age 15, while on “work experience” for my local newspaper, The Basingstoke Gazette. Work experience was the best thing that ever happened to me in high school….or rather out of school, since it involved spending two weeks away from school, researching and writing articles about events in and around the town. I went with another reporter to rescue a bird from a woman’s roof, and wrote about that. I watched and reported on the local elementary school play. I visited a center for physically handicapped children to learn about their new bus. I had a whale of a time. My byline was on an article about a new emergency system for the elderly – the precursor to “Help! I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!”
As an undergrad at Sheffield University I wrote news articles for the student newspaper and became News Editor-in-Chief in my second year at Sheffield. Then I moved to the U.S. and found that journalism here is a very different animal than in the U.K. Â My writing style just didn’t fit with The Diamondback, The University of Maryland’s Student Newspaper, and my articles were constantly amended and changed until they were no longer mine. Eventually, despite the fact that I was being paid to write for the first time in my life, I quit.
Somewhere along the path to reality I gave up on my dream of becoming a journalist. After graduating I became an Editor for an engineering firm and spent the next several years rewriting other people’s prose. My blog has returned to me the ability to write the way I want, without having to conform to a particular style or meet any criteria.
But I still love to write for larger audiences and so I jumped when recently given the chance to write for Washington Running Report, a magazine I’ve enjoyed reading for several years. The topic was charity running and I happened to know the perfect charity runner to interview. I love everything about Amy’s story; trouble is, I love it a little too much. And so I went way over my 450 word count limit. As in, 450 words over. I cut it down some. It was still much too long. I tried to cut more but just couldn’t. Knowing I was close to the deadline, I sent the article to the Editor apologizing for the length and hoping they had room for the extra few paragraphs. Who was I kidding? I know from my days on Sheffield University’s student newspaper that there’s a finite amount of space for each article.
So of course the Editor did the only thing she could – cut it down to make it fit. While she did a great job of keeping most of the story, and while the outcome is entirely my fault, I felt bad that so much had to be left out of Amy’s story. (You can read the article on page 17 of the magazine.) And so, since I’ve been rambling for a while now, I’m going to shut up and let Amy’s words speak for themselves. This is the article in its entirety.
You might think the 2010 top individual fundraiser for Train 4 Autism had a well-planned strategy, a background in fundraising, or at least some sort of plan before she started. But youâ€™d be wrong. Because this is the story of how one race, intended as a distraction from the challenge of traveling 1500 miles with an autistic child for treatment, turned into a year-long, 1000 mile fundraising journey, simply because she said â€œyes.â€
She is Amy Belknap, a 38-year old who lives in South Riding, VA with her husband Randall, daughter Carley and son Bailey. Bailey is 10 and was diagnosed with autism in 2005. Since his diagnosis, Baileyâ€™s parents have been on a mission to find a treatment that will help their son. When Amy found the Johnson Center for Child Health and Development in Austin, TX, she believed their program might help Bailey.Â But she was terrified. Terrified that, after previous failures, the program wouldnâ€™t work, and Bailey would end up being institutionalized. Terrified that it would work, and they would have to relocate. So she did what everyone does when theyâ€™re terrified: found something that terrified her even more. She signed up to run a half marathon in Austin.
After the race, as Bailey jumped on the bed in their hotel room, she posted her â€œjust ran my first half marathonâ€ status on Facebook. Iâ€™m sure it was amusing, as Amyâ€™s known for her humorous posts, such as: Well, after 1150 miles in the car driving to Ironman Lake Placid & back this weekend, I have an IronButt. Her post got an instant reaction from friends, all of them asking, â€œAre you running for Autism? How can we donate?â€Â Believing that, â€œif someone offers you money, never say no,â€ Amy said â€œYes, of course!â€ Still stuck in the hotel room in Austin, with Bailey now climbing the walls, she thought, â€œI just missed an opportunity; Iâ€™d better run another race.â€ Motivated her friends, she signed up on the spotÂ for the following month’s National Half Marathon. â€œI looked at Bailey bouncing on the hotel bed and looked at how far weâ€™d come and thought, if I can take an autistic child across the country, I can raise money by running.â€
Through an online search for a portal through which people could donate, Amy found Train 4 Autism. It was just the organization she was looking for because, unlike some other charity organizations, Train 4 Autism allows the athlete to choose what events they race and where the funds go. Amy chose the Johnson Center as her funding recipient, to thank them for all they had given Bailey. The day she launched her fundraising page, Amy received $700 in donations.Â But she didnâ€™t stop there. Admitting that â€œI have a tendency to chicken out,â€ Amy decided she needed accountability. She announced her goal: one year, one race per month, $1000 in donations per race, for a total of $10,000. Oh, and 1000 miles of running. She cemented that one with a license plate that read 1000MI.
Once home from Austin, she realized ordinary fundraising, which involves a lot of legwork, wasnâ€™t going to work because of Baileyâ€™s schedule and because itâ€™s hard to take an autistic child out with you. It was at a marketing seminar on increasing sales (she and her husband are small business owners) that she found the answer: social media. â€œThis was the perfect fit,â€ she says, â€œbecause I can be on the computer anywhere: at Baileyâ€™s appointments, at home while heâ€™s doing therapy, in the middle of the nightâ€¦â€
She immediately set up a blog – autismrunner.blogspot.com – where she shared her story. She carried her phone to races â€œso people were at the start with meâ€ and updated her status as soon as she was done. Following her mantra, â€œsurround yourself with good resources and people who know what theyâ€™re doing,â€ she networked with endurance athletes to learn how to run and with autism parents to raise awareness and promote her fundraising. She saw an upsurge in donations around the date of her races and realized that twitter was the best way to get noticed. Ever savvy, she struck up conversations with key individuals in the autism community who had large numbers of followers. Retweets were her secret weapon.
Her â€œcan doâ€ attitude endeared her to followers. She made fun of herself, pointed out the silly things she did at races, and described how she got through the tough spots. â€œBefore the race, one of my autism mommy friends advised me to â€˜Run like the cure is at the finish.â€™ I just kept saying that over and over again, in between the mental swear words, ouches, and whimpering.â€ She found that the more she put herself out there, the more she got in return. She reconnected with her best friend from 7th grade, Jenny Lagerquist, now an Ironman triathlete and coach, who agreed to provide coaching for her first marathon, Marine Corps Marathon.
As if it wasnâ€™t enough to be running her first marathon, Amy decided to do it dressed as a tooth. She claims that a neighbor, who was a dentist, â€œcharity daredâ€ her to do it. Seeing this as another opportunity to fundraise, by the time MCM rolled around she had multiple dental sponsors, all of which she displayed on her â€œmarathon molarâ€ costume. Two more marathons â€“ Outer Banks and Las Vegas RnR â€“ gave her 7 half marathons and 3 full marathons for the year. She qualified for both Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs, further increasing her network of supporters and donors.
Done, right? Wrong. Amy wanted to come full circle and finish where she startedâ€¦well, almost. In February 2010 she had started the fundraising journey when she ran the Austin Half Marathonâ€¦one year later she ran the Marathon, a symbol of how far sheâ€™d come. Of her achievement, Amy says, â€œThe more you give, the more youâ€™re uplifted and strengthened. It never felt a burden to me. You need a reason when youâ€™re tired and feel you canâ€™t go on. Running for a charity gave me that reason.â€
Amy is still running and completed her first triathlon last year, placing first in her age group. She now has her sights set on an Ironman! You can read her blog at www.autismrunner.blogspot.com For more information on the Johnson Center in Austin, TX, visit www.johnson-center.org For more information on Train 4 Autism, visit www.train4autism.org
Have you ever been “charity dared?” Ever exceeded your word count? What’s your dream job?