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Race For Grace gears up for 5th year

A milestone in the fight against cancer has a special significance for a North Huntingdon Township family.

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.

Her parents, Brian and Tamara Ekis, founded the Reflections of Grace Foundation that year to raise money to offer support to families going through similar situations.

The foundation's biggest fund-raiser, Race For Grace, is in its fifth year. Grace Ekis participated in the first race in 2007.

"That is part of the reason she will always be forever 5," Tamara Ekis said. "She also was the fifth member of our family. So we feel that the five is a very special number to us. We were so lucky to be supported when Grace was sick, and now we are humbled by the fact that our community continues to support the foundation so that we can, in turn, support so many families that are struggling as their children are diagnosed with brain cancer."

This year's race is scheduled for March 31 at Norwin High School. Opening activities will be at 7 a.m. and an opening ceremony is scheduled for approximately 8:30. The race will begin at 9.

The family endured a long and heartbreaking journey of finding the best treatments for Grace to prolong her life, while attempting to lead as normal a life as possible with Grace and her two older brothers, Colin and Garrett.

"It's always difficult because we remember back to that first Race for Grace, which Grace was a part of," race director Ashley Metz said. "She got to be there and enjoy the experience of the day. She had so much fun. We have a lot of fond memories with her on that day.

"We think back to that day, and we try to carry forward the fun and enjoyment that she had, and that she was able to share with her friends and family and neighbors who came out to support that first race."

This year's fund-raising goal is $100,000, and at least 50 teams already are signed up. Online registration is available through Monday. Teams still can sign up the day of the race between 7 and 8 a.m. Events are scheduled to conclude around 1 p.m. following an awards ceremony.

Foundation officials conducted volunteer orientations at the high school this week.

Race For Grace participants may choose to run or walk the 5K or walk the 1-mile course. The 5K run will be timed using state-of-the-art, disposable D-tag chip technology.

Other activities include entertainment, charitable hair donations, dance performances, a bake sale, and Chinese and silent auctions. An awareness booth will be at the event to provide information about this devastating disease.

Colin, a junior at Norwin High School, presented the idea of his fellow students participating in the race at a student leadership conference, as well as at the high school prom fashion show.

The district responded with more than 25 teams consisting of students in all sports, social clubs and other organizations. Those groups are eligible for special high school-only prizes on race day, including Biggest Team and Most Team Spirit.

"My close friends really helped me through Grace's death, and not just hide in a shell," Colin said. "To embrace her life and keep living mine the way she would want me to do it. To know that (friends) are behind me, and to know they really support me in what I really love doing, working with our foundation, is really special. It makes me feel that I'm doing something right and genuinely good."

The race has brought in more than $237,000 since its inception five years ago. Last year's race attracted 2,400 participants and attendees.

"We would like to increase both the money raised and the amount of people that we reach and people that come," Tamara Ekis said. "We really have been fortunate that the race has grown from being a race of 300 to thinking of it being a race of 2,000 in its five years."

Metz said there were 1,800 registered participants last year, including runners and walkers, as well as 300 volunteers and 300 spectators.

"We are ahead in terms of registration at this point," Metz said. "That's encouraging to see."

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 www.reflectionsofgrace.org , on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reflectionsofgrace .

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