At Visalia's Oak Grove Elementary, running club catches fire

The Fresno BeeDecember 18, 2013 

VISALIA -- Minutes after the final bell at Oak Grove Elementary School, dozens of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students file into Room 10 clad in running shoes and neon green shirts that have the motto, "Owl see you at the finish line" printed on the back.

More than 60 students fill the room every Wednesday after school and await the lesson of the day, often from a special guest, before walking to the neighboring Soroptomist Park in Visalia where they will run or jog at least one mile, or four laps around the .27-mile course.

The students are part of the Oak Grove Owls Running Club, started by track coach Tari Pierce.

She answered the call at the end of last school year when her track athletes said they were bummed about the season being over and there being nowhere to run together with their friends.

Pierce, a special-education aide and ultradistance runner, got help from parents and started weekly meetings. The club has grown from 17 runners. Hurley, Shannon Ranch, Four Creeks and Royal Oaks schools in Visalia also have caught the running bug.

"We want our kids to know that anybody can run," Pierce said. "It's not about winning, it's about finishing, and we want them to experience coming across the finish line."

That mindset is reinforced with guest runners ranging from parents to fitness expert Justin Levine of Sole 2 Soul Sports and even an appearance from Visalia Unified superintendent Craig Wheaton.

Oak Grove Principal John Davis said the club is "a dream come true," because it was an entirely grassroots effort.

The club not only reinforces fitness, but also character development through self-discipline and honesty, Davis said. Students are held to the honor system, keeping their own tally on the distance they run at school and at home. Every student who runs a marathon distance in one month -- 26.2 miles -- is invited to a pizza party at the end of the month.

But the kids said they don't run for pizza or the goodies they receive.

"I like it because I have a chance to let loose of my energy and do something," said sixth-grader Jayden Perez. "If I had to rate it from 1 to 5, I'd give it 5 stars."

Perez, 11, is one of the club leaders, leading others in stretches and pacing the pack around the track at Soroptomist Park. He's one of a handful who have competed in local 5Ks and even ran the half-marathon at Two Cities in November.

"I'm not stopping. I can do this forever," he said.

Fifth-grader Sydney Somavia said she runs because it's something fun she can do with her friends after school: "I like it because I can see how far I can run. It's why I stay after school, for the running."

For sixth-grader Michael McLennan, it's about helping his younger brother Hunter. Every Wednesday, Michael runs alongside Hunter, completing one or two miles. The run has created an activity the two can do at home and outside of school.

The students' motivation to help each other has caught on among their teachers.

Rhonda Sanchez, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, said she joins the running club not to help supervise, but because a majority of her students are in the club and had asked her why she wasn't out running with them.

"I never thought I'd be out here running every day," Sanchez said, sporting running clothes and shoes she slipped into after the final bell. "These kids can be very inspiring."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6401 or amoreno@fresnobee.com.

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