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Inmates Go the Distance to Help Local Charity

by on October 07, 2012 12:32 PM

Last Saturday, inside the walls of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Rockview, inmates — many facing life behind bars — came together for charity.

Nearly 100 inmates jogged around the prison yard track at the 33rd annual Pennsylvania Run-a-thon. The inmates converged on the track and ran until early afternoon all to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Centre County.

“It's just a great event,” said Marie Hamilton, founder and former director of CentrePeace along the Benner Pike. “It started a long time ago. I started getting requests from the inmates to do something charitable. They just run their hearts out.”

The event began in 1979. The money raised didn't always go to Big Brothers Big Sisters, however. When the Run-a-thon began, organizers had different ideas.

“This was the inmates' idea and in the first few years, they wanted to raise money for children with cancer. That's the way it was for the first couple of years, then it changed. It's a pretty significant thing for these inmates,” Hamilton said.

According to Hamilton, the shift to Big Brothers Big Sisters came when Rockview inmates decided that they wanted to donate the money to an organization that provided one-on-one mentoring support for at-risk children. Big Brothers Big Sisters, a part of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, was the perfect fit, she said.

“When it was time to pick a charity, they chose Big Brothers Big Sisters because a lot of them think that maybe if they had a Big Brother when they were young, their lives would've turned out differently,” Hamilton said.

Thom Brewster, current director of Centre Peace, has watched the Run-a-thon in previous years. He worked as a “counter,” someone who counted the inmates' many laps.

“It's just an amazing event,” Brewster said. “You see those hardcore runners out there and those just strolling casually around. But all of them have a common goal — to help a charitable organization.”

The Run-a-thon began at Rockview. However, by 1981 word had trickled down throughout the prison system about the great things the inmates were doing. Other prisons followed suit. The rest, as they say, is history.

“At one point, we had 24 prisons participating and it was the largest inmate volunteer effort in the world,” Hamilton said.

The Run-a-thon was originally simply going to be called an inmate marathon, but there was concern that some inmates wouldn't be able to run the required 26.2 miles. While some certainly don't run that distance, there are many that run the miles — and then some.

At this year's Run-a-thon, one inmate, who goes by the name of “Lee,” reportedly ran 50 miles in a little over six hours. The record, according to Hamilton, belongs to Rob Brown, who once ran 63 miles over the course of the day.

“It's pretty significant when you think about it,” Hamilton said. “What these men do is pretty amazing. They're proud of it. There's an awards ceremony and those who participated get certificates. They take great pride in that.”

Austin Smucker of Big Brothers Big Sisters watched the Run-a-thon for the first time this year. He thought it was inspirational.

“It was great to witness these guys running for kids and for some of them to inform you that they train year round for this event is truly amazing,” said Smucker, a case manager with BBBS.

Melissa Donohue, a case manager with Big Brothers Big Sisters, was also at the Run-a-thon for the first time.

“At first, I was nervous to be sitting next to criminal offenders, but by the end of the morning I had chatted with several of them and discovered that despite the barbed wire covered fences and the guard towers with 24-hour surveillance, these men were holding onto their humanity with humor and the formation of friendships with each other,” Donohue said.

In addition to helping Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Run-a-thon provides some great benefits to the inmate.

“You're talking about a group of men running 30 to 40 miles. A lot of them train 364 days of the year,” Brewster said. “There are great health benefits for these men. It keeps them healthy and out of prison hospitals. That helps the taxpayer. It's a win-win.”



Chris Morelli is the managing editor of The Centre County Gazette.
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