Leavitt Running Club not giving up, giving back

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Leavitt Running Club members after finishing the Sugarloaf Marathon at 25K. Back row, from left: Scott Grimshaw, Autumn Simpson, Sara Thurston, Chase Rowe, Isaiah Davis, Jillian Rombalski, Ryan Pratt, Emily Thibodeau, Justin Cabral, Ava Petrin, Julia Labbe, Laura Etsy and Carly Jordan; front row from left: Dustin Williamson, Taylor Crosby, Ally Ryan, Georgia Vallee and Tamra Benson.

Life is like a marathon.

That metaphor, that sentiment, was instilled upon Georgia Vallee’s Wellness 2 class at Leavitt Area High School two years ago by Jack Mosher, a suicide prevention speaker that spoke about building resiliency. Mosher then challenged the students to run an actual marathon.

That was the first step toward the creation of the Leavitt Running Club.

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“This group isn’t just about running, it’s about that idea of setting goals,” Vallee said. “And I think that as kids reach goals they just feel so good about themselves. And it’s also about helping other people. You learn a lot when you’re running with a group. You learn how to encourage each other, and you learn how to help each other out, and inspire each other along.”

Running, and the Running Club, was the inspiration behind club member Ava Petrin coming up with the idea for the club’s next event, the Pasquale’s Walk 5K, which will take place Saturday. The walk will serve as a benefit for LAHS Social Studies teacher Pasquale Bifulco, who is battling brain cancer.

“When I first found out about Mr. Bifulco, I wanted to help in some way, so I brought my idea to the Running Club,” Petrin, a sophomore, said. “Initially, we met as a small committee and formed a preliminary plan. We decided to host the walk on homecoming weekend so that as many people as possible could be involved. Once school started up in late August, the Leavitt community really pulled together and the pieces started to fall in place.”

A helping hand

Mosher’s challenge was met by Vallee and three students, who completed the Maine Marathon. It was a goal achieved and gave Vallee an example for her wellness class students about one of her favorite topics — hopes, dreams and goals.

“I really feel that if you have a goal it helps keep you centered, gives you something to work for, you make decisions to make your goal a reality,” Vallee said.

The lesson, and the example, led to another group of students wanting to run a marathon. Then another, with more interested runners each time.

Vallee knew that a big part of preparing to run a marathon was the training, so she enlisted the help of Bob Brainerd and Pam Edgecomb of Central Maine Conditioning Clinic. To go along with the partnership, Brainerd and Edgecomb introduced the Running Club members to their Moving ME Forward foundation, which has a mission to “cultivate social change in the areas of health and fitness within Maine communities,” according to Edgecomb.

Brainerd and Edgecomb helped the club members with not only training, but also helping offset the costs of entering races. In return, the club members were challenged to give back in some way. That has included anything from selling raffle tickets at the Lake Auburn Half Marathon (which Central Maine Conditioning Clinic puts on) to preparing the race’s medals, to this summer helping out at the Good Shepard Food Bank.

“The kids learned a lot from that experience,” Vallee said.

Giving back

Isaiah Davis, another Social Studies teacher at LAHS and a member of the Running Club, said it was about the same time of the club volunteering at Good Shepard that the staff and students learned about Bifulco’s cancer diagnosis.

“Ava, she messaged me and Georgia and said that she had been thinking about (Bifulco’s diagnosis) and that she really felt like the running group … she wanted us as a group to do it, and anything we could do to help, and she wanted something that got the whole community involved because she wanted it to be like a family supporting it,” Davis said. “And so we just went with it, and the kids have been planning it. It’s been great. We’ve kind of given them some structure and ideas on how to do stuff.”

Davis said the students have taken the initiative on everything involved with the walk. They run all of the committees, and they approach Davis and Vallee every day with new ideas.

“They are really excited, they’re into it, emailing us and sending us posters that they’ve made,” Davis said. “They made this awesome poster that they wanted to really capture Pasquale, so part of it’s in Italian, it’s got a guitar on it. So they’re sometimes more thoughtful here than adults, and trying to make it really about him and trying to help out.”

Overwhelming support

While the club has its focus on the upcoming walk, other students and staff have found other ways to help out Bifulco, who Jamie Juntura — an LAHS Math teacher and track coach, and also a “loose affiliate” of the Running Club — called a “beloved teacher” at Leavitt.

“A lot of groups have been helping,” Davis said. “Like (Bifulco) cuts and splits his own wood. And so when he went in the hospital it was half-done, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we should get a couple people and it will take a few hours.’

“Somebody went in where the football guys were lifting weights in the weight room, and asked if a couple of them would come over. Thirty guys showed up. We were done in an hour. We just like obliterated everything that needed to be done. And they were just like, ‘Oh, tell us when we can do it again.’ There were so many people that volunteered to mow his lawn that they had to make shifts and split it up because his lawn would have been mowed every day.”

Pasquale’s Walk is scheduled for Saturday morning, before the homecoming games begin, so all the various clubs can participate in the walk.

Coming together

While Pasquale’s Walk is about raising money for the Bifulco family to help with the enormous cost of battling cancer, it’s also about bringing a community together and showing the Bifulco and his family support.

“This walk will also send a message of strength and healing,” Juntura said. “Like most communities, cancer has worked its way into our daily lives and this walk will serve as a beacon of hope and healing, for both Pasquale and any other person who has been affected by cancer.”

“What’s really neat about Leavitt, this community, I think, is pretty unique,” Vallee said. “I think that as a staff we do a lot to build community and to build a sense of pride. It’s not surprising that our kids follow suit. There’s some really amazing kids in our school, and they are very caring, and it’s just amazing to see.”

Petrin’s mother, Jessica Talbot, is a teacher at LAHS. She has seen firsthand what the Running Club has done for Ava and the other students.

“She has learned so much about setting challenging goals for herself and then working hard to attain those goals,” Talbot said.

Three long-distance races were one kind of challenge. Making Pasquale’s Walk a reality is another. But Talbot said the Running Club has also taught her daughter about supporting fellow club members in achieving their goals. Petrin has received plenty of support herself with Pasqaule’s Walk.

“Having a group of outstanding, supportive people to give you a hand along the way has given me a new perspective on the importance of community,” Petrin said.

It’s a community that has come together metaphorically for Pasquale Bifulco, and on Saturday will come together literally to help out him and his family.

wkramlich@sunjournal.com

Leavitt Running Club members in June: Tamra Benson, Sara Thurston, Kelly Bean, Chase Rowe, Scott Grimshaw, Ava Petrin, Georgia Vallee, Jaston Breton, Alicia Sirois and Jillian Rombalski.Leavitt Running Club members after the Lake Auburn half-marathon earlier this month.Pasquale BifulcoBifulco family, from left, Saudra, Caterina, Pasquale and Lorenzo.Leavitt Running Club members volunteering at the Good Shepherd Food Bank. Back row, from left: Tamra Benson, Jillian Rombalski, Jason Breton, Isaiah Davis, Carly Jordan, Justin Cabral, Nicole Sargent; front row: Madie McCormick, Ava Petrin, Kelly Bean, Abby Thurston, Georgia Vallee.Leavitt Running Club member Ava Petrin volunteering at the Good Shepherd Food BankLeavitt Running Club members after finishing the Lake Auburn half-marathon in Sept. 2016: Emily Thibodeau, Justin Cabral, Julia Labbe, Hyla Webster, Georgia Vallee, Carly Jordan, Taylor Crosby an dRyan Pratt.

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