Race for Riley brings increased participation, more aid

Tue, 04/28/2009 - 3:35pm
By: Ben Nelms

Race for Riley brings increased participation

They came to walk and run April 25 for a benefit fund-raiser that has become a regional tradition set in the rolling hills of south Fulton County.

The 5th Annual Race for Riley 5K Walk/Run grew even larger this year, with 880 runners and more than 3,000 people from across metro Atlanta and out of state assembling on the expansive grounds of Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Palmetto.

The race is named in honor of Chattahoochee Hill Country resident Riley Peek who attends The Joseph Sams School in Fayetteville, the recipient of the fund-raiser proceeds.

The event for the past five years began as the brainchild of Riley’s mother, Waynette, who with no fund-raising experience, raised approximately $70,000 the first year.

Today Waynette and Riley’s dad, Rodney, an air traffic controller, put in countless hours each year to continue the fund-raising effort. Proceeds from the first two events went to United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, the organization dedicated to finding treatments for the debilitating, systemic condition with which Riley is diagnosed.

And for the past three years, Waynette has designated The Joseph Sams School as the recipient. Now 7 years old, Riley was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease at age 2.

Waynette nearly squealed with excitement after the 5K when she was told that this year’s event brought 880 runners to the Race for Riley, easily besting last year’s total.

“With all the loopholes you go through, it can get a little frustrating. But when you see this today, everything I had to do to get to this day was worth it. It’s an emotional day, to come and see everyone here,” Waynette said, explaining that, aside from the runners that frequent such events, a significant percentage of the more than 3,000 attending came to support Riley and her school.

“To me, it’s the community that supports this and they are here for a reason. They are here to help children with special needs, to help Riley. If I didn’t have a child with a disability, I probably wouldn’t realize what an impact it truly makes. We talked earlier about the economy not doing well. And I look at these children with disabilities. They shouldn’t have to deal with the possibility of something like losing a teacher or not having a wheelchair. We want to keep the school the way it is without the economy affecting the children. I want them to be able to get the things they need.”

Sams School Administrative Director Marie Sams knows only too well the realities of funding special needs students and the dilemmas that can prevent the income needed to provide quality care. Those realities make the efforts of Waynette and Rodney Peek all the more appreciated. For those who have never organized a large fund-raiser, it may seem a small thing. But for Marie Sams, she knows the rest of the story.

“We could not do this (fund-raiser) without the incredible support and outpouring of love, of course from the Peek family, but also from their friends and the community. We have workers and support from the surrounding counties, but the largest support comes from the south Fulton area that helps out year after year. It’s appreciated from those of us who are trying to keep the doors of the school open,” Sams said.

“In the past years the Race for Riley has raised over $140,000 to directly benefit the school. I know the (corporate) sponsorships are down this year, but we’re having wonderful weather so I hope we’ll be just as successful once we get the final count.”

As is customary at the annual event, Rodney, like Waynette, is constantly on the move, checking and re-checking, to make sure everything goes off as planned. Whether the Walk/Run or Tot Trot, the food service, kids rides or the auctions, each portion of the multi-hour event is constantly under the eyes of the couple and the more than 100 volunteers.

“For Waynette and I this is such an emotional day. Seeing the whole community here, there are no city limits, no boundaries. It’s a community turning out to help the kids at The Joseph Sams School. It’s a special, special day for us,” Rodney said, having noted the many ways Riley benefits from attending the school. “So much credit goes to the participants, to the volunteers. The school has such a special place in our hearts. When you have a girl that can’t speak, you are very selective which caregiver you trust her with. When she is at the school we don’t worry. We just have the upmost confidence in the school.”

And like Waynette, Rodney gives the credit to the community and the host of volunteers that help with the event each year. Some work for days, even weeks and months, each year for the Saturday morning event.

Toward the end of the event Sams spoke again about how the school depends on donations to keep the doors open, to keep tuition as low as possible and to offer scholarships. Approximately 60 percent of the school’s students receive some form of scholarship assistance.

“We know that when you are trying to raise a child with a disability you have a lot of extra costs,” Sams said in reference to the increased need for medical care, therapy, hospital, specialized equipment and babysitting. “We know this so we try to keep tuition affordable and provide scholarships. And that’s why we’re so dependent on fund-raising events.”

And as for next year’s Race for Riley, the events take about eight months of preparation. Rodney said it will take about a month to close out this year’s event. He and Waynette will take a few months off then start up again in September to plan the 2010 fund-raiser. Rodney also shared his thoughts on the persistence shown by Waynette to make sure the fundraisers continued for the past several years.

“We’ve been married 15 years and I appreciate her more and more. When her feet hit the ground in the morning she does not stop. She takes care of our three children, subs at the school a lot, gets stuff ready for the Race for Riley, volunteers at church and other places. When the kids go to bed, she’ll go and do housework and check email and is up for several more hours getting things done. It’s amazing what she gets done,” Rodney said.

Also attending the fund-raiser was Sams School President Dale Georgia. Like everyone that attends the event each year, Georgia, too, was impressed with its scope and impact.

“The Race for Riley is an awesome community event. For the past three years all the funding from the event goes to the school. It’s wonderful, a true testament to the community, and how good the community is for organizations like ours,” Georgia said.

The Joseph Sams School serves intellectually, physically and developmentally challenged students from areas such as Fayette, Coweta, Fulton, Henry, Cobb, DeKalb, Clayton and Upson counties.

For more information on The Joseph Sams School, call 770-461-5894 or visit www.josephsamsschool.org

Click here for photos.

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