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Crossing finish line with sense of pride and hope

  • Written by Claudia Parker

Claudia-NEW

Ask any parent what hurts them most and I’ll bet they’ll tell you it’s when their children are hurting. Be it by accident or illness, it’s absolutely excruciating watching your children experience pain. That’s why I didn’t hesitate when Advocate Children’s Hospital asked me to be Ayiana Hernandez’s running mentor for their 9th Annual Running for Hope 5K Run/Walk.

Ayiana is a 13-year-old pediatric cancer survivor who is now two years cancer free. We met last year through this running program. It’s my second year being her mentor. She’s a beautiful, fun loving, free spirit that I adore. I’m relieved I didn’t know her while she was battling this awful disease. I wouldn’t have wanted to watch her suffer. Being able to contribute my time by running to help her remain healthy is very gratifying and I’m not alone.    

Over the previous eight years, the Pediatric Oncology team at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn and the CURE-IT FOUNDATION in partnership with SURVIVORVISION have invited avid runners to mentor survivors.

We spent nine weeks at the Keyser Pediatric Cancer Center training. There were 25 survivors, 25 survivor friends and 25 mentors that participated. Each session included a warm-up, walk and/or run, cool down, stretching, and “homework” assignments for the survivor and their buddy we were paired with. Last year, Ayiana’s mother, Virginia Rivera, trained with us. This year it was her father, Miguel Hernandez.

The race took place on Sunday, June 5.

I’ve ran two full 26.2 mile marathons, at least seven half-marathons, three 10 milers and several 5K races. So why on earth would I tear up at the finish line of this race? Because the 9th Annual Running for Hope 5K Run/Walk was my 8-year-old daughter Donae’s first race. She wouldn’t have been able to do it without the ProActive Kids (PAK) Foundation, which is a youth program in Oak Lawn, also sponsored by Advocate Children’s Hospital.  

My confident, outgoing, social butterfly had started to become subconscious about her weight after a few of her peers made unkind remarks about her body. I gave her the ole’, “You’re beautiful, never mind them,” spiel but I soon realized a true intervention was needed. She was beginning to have a poor body image, all while overindulging in unhealthy foods.

What I know for sure is -- to ignore a problem one doesn’t know how to resolve, doesn’t make it disappear.

My husband, Don, and I are both physically fit, him especially. Neither of us could understand how weight became an issue for our daughter, but it did. We sought intervention through ProActive Kids and it’s made a tremendous impact.

With the sponsorship of Advocate Children’s Hospital, PAK is a complimentary fitness and nutrition program designed for children ages 8-14 who are struggling with their weight, and being overweight. The program offers a safe environment where kids can work out and learn about proper nutrition. They also focus on their self-esteem, body image, stress, feelings and a variety of other issues caused by being overweight. It’s an eight week program offered three days per week with classes that range from 90 minutes to two-hours.

There are eight locations in the Chicago area; the one we attended took place at the Oak Lawn Ice Arena on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Monday and Wednesday was from 4 to 5:30 p.m., Friday was from 4 to 6 p.m. The class was structured with the first 45 minutes of physical fitness, followed by 45 minutes with a licensed social worker, who acted as their lifestyle coach. Fridays included a session with a nutritionist who kept us informed about proper food choices and portion control.

Parents were required to be active participants in the program. The children attended independently on Monday and Wednesday but Fridays the entire family was encouraged to attend. We also had parent-only meetings and received weekly emails informing us exactly what our kids were doing in class and how we could support them at home.

Donae doesn’t have an innate need to be physically active. She’s completely content to lounge on the sofa and watch “Full House” episodes all day if we allowed her. However, once she started PAK, she began requesting to exercise. PAK made fitness fun and rewarded her progress. She loved getting the recognition and being around other kids who had similar weight loss goals. Together, they were supporting each other, week by week to create a plan for a healthier life.

It worked.

With the loss of almost four pounds, Donae’s confidence in her physical ability shifted. She requested to train with me and Ayiana for the Running for Hope race. I wasn’t convinced she wouldn’t complain and fall behind, like she had numerous other times I’ve tried to train her, but she insisted.

Donae totally surprised me. Each week she got stronger and stronger until she was able to complete the entire distance of 3.1 miles. It was mostly run/walk but prior to joining PAK she wasn’t walking a 1/2 mile, let alone three.

The Running for Hope race just happened to culminate the PAK program. It ended Friday, May 27. So yes, I teared up under my shades as she sprinted full throttle across that finish line; pumping her fist like she’s seen her Momma do many times. Aaah sweet victory!

I’m proud of Donae because she’s learned to own her choices. Before going to PAK, nothing Don and I did or said would resonate. Sometime it takes another source to help our kids fully appreciate the message.

For any parent recognizing their child hurting in this area, you don't have to watch them suffer. I’d highly recommend PAK. Visit http://www.proactivekids.org/

Claudia Parker is an Evergreen Park mother, author and runner whose columns appear in The Reporter the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.