Think cheerleaders are airheads, or soccer moms don’t think outside the universe of their school district? You haven’t met former Oakland Raiderette Erika Small, who envisioned Run It Forward, a grand “pay it forward” to benefit underprivileged kids in the nation’s heartland.
“People talk … they complain about the economy, their school systems, lost opportunities for their kids,” said the Granite Bay soccer mom. “I say get out there and do something.”
She was inspired by El Dorado Hills dad Jason Harper, whose Herculean 100 mile trot in 2008 raised money, consciousness and test scores at Oak Ridge Elementary School in South Sacramento.
Small also enjoys the support of another high profile El Dorado Hills dad, Jacoby Shaddix, who fronts the rock band Papa Roach.
Run It forward is a cross-country relay that challenges six top “ultra-runners,” plus Small and Harper, to a marathon a day, tag-teaming the entire length of historic Route 66. The pavement pounding kicks off with media events in Chicago on May 14 and runs non-stop, day and night, until the entourage arrives in Los Angeles 18 to 20 days later.
Small’s goal is “to turn the mother road (Route 66) into a classroom,” she said, where endurance athletes and soccer moms address the largest obstacles to learning in kids: access to health care, nutrition, a healthy lifestyle and literacy.
She selected schools along the route with low test scores and high participation in subsidized lunch programs. Kids will receive free health and dental screening, emotional assessments, nutrition and fitness pep talks, capped off with a short family walk/jog led by Run it Forward team members, and maybe even a tattooed, spike-haired rock star.
Doctors and dentists in each community will take referrals from the screenings. Groceries will be available to anyone who needs them. Local officials will be on hand at each stop to sign students up for assistance programs.
Small met Harper through his Be Change program. She saw the results he got in South Sacramento and asked if he’d consider taking the program national.
“I was flattered but just couldn’t think about multiplying that effort on a national scale,” he said. “That’s when I learned that hell hath no fury like soccer moms with a vision.”
The former Raiderette trained with Harper, and soon got the ear of another Harper distance running protégé, fitness buff Kelly Shaddix. Both women completed their first marathon under Harper’s tutelage.
Along the way, Harper befriended Kelly’s rock star husband Jacoby, who became a hard rock household name when Papa Roach’s rap-metal screamer “Infest” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard charts in 2001. Six years and three hit records later, the Shaddix family landed in El Dorado Hills, where their two kids attend school.
Papa Roach has a new album due out later this year, but not before Jacoby hits the road with the Run It Forward team to do “some running, some cheerleading and maybe a little laundry” in the heartland, he said.
Jacoby recently completed his first half-marathon as part of Be Change. “We raised around $6,000 for the kids at Oak Ridge (elementary).” he said. “It was cool.”
How does a guy with a hard-rock reputation become fast friends with a rock-hard endurance runner and devout Christian who donates his free time to kids in a school that’s 30 miles away?
“As different as they are, they’ve gotten along from day one,” said Kelly. “They sort of walk the same walk.”
“I’ve never met anyone as selfless as Jason, especially in my business,” said Jacoby. “He’s a positive force, another piece of the puzzle in this crazy life I lead.
“The world has given me some amazing opportunities,” he continued. “If these guys can take my celebrity and use it to give something back, well that’s great.”
Harper invited several elite ultra runners to participate — “The crazies who routinely run punishing distances in brutal conditions,” he said, adding that he expected few to sign up, “But now we’re turning people away.”
Harper and Small are both running. The other six ultra-runners currently on board are Ray Sanchez, Simren Dulai, Jimmy Freeman, Keira Henninger, Kate Freeman and Dave Carder.
Granite Bay Soccer moms Michelle Crews and Jen Hamburg are the other core members of Small’s team. They are working with local law enforcement, school officials, health care providers and community leaders in each of eight planned stops to put on a health fair, town hall or school assembly.
In most cases the event will precede the runners, to focus attention on the run and possibly recruit some additional “pacers.”
The original plan called for a motor home, but Papa Roach tour veteran Kelly pulled some strings and landed a rock-star caliber tour bus on the cheap from Pioneer Coaches, then volunteered to coordinate logistics for the runners.
“Kelly gets stuff done,” said Jacoby. “Any woman that can handle me on the road and off for the last 18 years should have no problem keeping eight ultra runners in line.”
Seeing his program evolve and grow, “replicating itself just like the movie ‘Pay it Forward,’” is tremendously rewarding, said Harper.
The movie that inspired the run’s name is about a boy whose small acts of kindness change lives in unexpectedly powerful ways. Its soundtrack includes the fiery Papa Roach anthem “Last Resort,” co-written by Jacoby, who sees the connection as evidence that “Everything seems to come full circle … just do it better for the next person … to make the world a better place.”
In 2008 Harper told Village Life that running for a cause was contagious, then mused, “Just imagine 450 people in the Greater Sacramento community running for 450 poor kids from the inner-city.”
Seven years later he’s got a team of empowered soccer moms leading eight elite runners 2,224 miles for 6,400 kids in seven under-served schools along Route 66. “That’s real people making a real impact,” he said.
To learn more, donate or get involved go to the Run It Forward website runitforward.cc.