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Annual Race For Grace brings in $101K for cancer victims, research

Michael DiVittorio
| Monday, April 2, 2012

A race inspired by a North Huntingdon Township girl is setting records in the fight against cancer.

Norwin High School hosted the fifth annual Race For Grace Saturday.

It is the largest fundraising event for the Reflections of Grace Foundation, a nonprofit organization started by Brian and Tamara Ekis in remembrance of their daughter.

Five-year-old Grace Elizabeth Ekis died on Feb. 14, 2008, from diffuse intrinsic potine glioma, a rare non-curable form of pediatric brain cancer that caused an inoperable tumor in her brain stem.

The charity formed that year to raise money to offer support to families going through similar situations. Grace participated in the first race in 2007.

"Every day we're constantly reminded of the things that Grace meant to us," Brian Ekis said. "We see it in our new daughter's face, our older boys Colin and Garrett, but there are truly reminders everywhere. It's never easy, but we've set a mission for ourselves to do something about it in a positive way."

There were 1,800 registered participants last year, including runners and walkers, as well as 300 volunteers and 300 spectators. It also raised $88,000, surpassing the goal of $85,000.

Race director Ashley Metz Leax said this year's turnout was nearly 2,900 people with 2,164 registered runners and walkers, approximately 300 volunteers and 400 spectators.

This year's fundraising goal was $100,000. Saturday's event yielded more than $101,000.

Leax thanked all who helped make the race a tremendous success.

"This being the fifth annual Race For Grace was a difficult and emotional milestone for us," Leax said. "Yet the overwhelming success of the event has exceeded our expectations once again. Looking around (the race), it was obvious that Grace was at work. I am deeply humbled to see that this labor of love for Grace continues to grow year after year.

"These extraordinary accomplishments would not have been possible without the tremendous help of our dedicated volunteers and the unwavering support of the community. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you."

Brian Ekis said a committee meets throughout the winter to plan the race, and more people get involved from that point.

"They know us through the foundation, other people that have helped, and they just show up," Brian Ekis said. "That never ceases to amaze me. It's unbelievable every year ... The volunteers with their pink shirts on and the participants, it's crazy. I think the reason why it's successful is the people that come out. It's the people who are generous and want to help in any way they can."

Colin Ekis, a junior at Norwin, helped get his classmates involved with the race this year. The district provided at least 20 teams for the event. Student council from grades ninth through 12 joined to form the biggest team of the event with more than 30 members.

"I'm good friends with Colin Ekis, and (the cause) affects all of us," junior Will Gooch said. "There's cancer everywhere. I just see how the kids get affected by cancer, and it makes me feel bad. Mostly this is just to find a cure for the kids."

Will said he plans to have student council participate in the race again next year when he becomes a senior.

"Every year it's growing, so we'll probably do more and more," Will said.

A music group consisting of Norwin students called Cult 13 performed a surprisingly fantastic hip-hop version of "Amazing Grace."

Tamara Ekis said she is very grateful for the support from the district and surrounding areas.

"A lot of people came out maybe just to see the day," Tamara Ekis said. "Every time we look there's more people. It's great. I think the kids really made a great effort and it was great to have them. We hope they come back again."

Race participants had the option to run or walk the 5K or walk the 1-mile course. The 5K run was timed using state-of-the-art, disposable D-tag chip technology.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch and Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA Julia Belechak presented race awards at a ceremony in the gymnasium.

Norwin senior Autumn Rose Greba took first place in the women's division with a time of 20 minutes.

"I think it was very moving," Autumn said. "The whole community comes together."

Other Race festivities included 50/50 raffle, Chinese and silent auctions, a bake sale, a cancer awareness booth, children's games, dance performances, and haircuts benefiting other charities.

Julie Greenawalt was one of the women who donated hair. Greenawalt said she usually donates to Locks of Love, an organization that provides wigs for children who have lost hair due to illness, every four years.

"I've never done it here at the race, and it was just time," Greenawalt said. "It's a great cause. We know the Ekis family. We know where the funding goes. I think any parent can put themselves in that situation and clearly imagine it."

Because of this event and other fund-raising efforts, the Reflections of Grace Foundation has been able to give $100,000 directly to 70 families of children fighting brain cancer in 25 states. In addition, $65,000 has been donated toward research grants to find a cure and to raise awareness of pediatric brain cancers.

More information about Race For Grace is available online at , on Facebook at .

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