Running to beat childhood cancer

Participants in the first annual With Purpose Kids Fun Run in Plymouth round a corner in the neighborhood where the race was hosted. This year’s Fun Run will take place at Bassett Creek Park in Crystal. (Submitted photo)

Crystal will host second annual With Purpose Kids Fun Run July 22

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Youth are capable of some impressive accomplishments, including doing much of the work to put on a public fundraising event, as was proven in the summer of 2016 with the success of the first-ever With Purpose Kids Fun Run.

The childhood cancer fundraising event, led in part by youth from the community, came to life after the tragic loss of a peer. Motivated by a desire to help others, the young people managed to raise $10,000 in the single morning of the run. Now, the group who diligently formulated the inaugural event in their Plymouth neighborhood are bringing it back with gusto in 2017 at Bassett Creek Park in Crystal.

The Fun Run, set for the morning of Saturday, July 22, is the bread and butter of With Purpose, an organization spearheaded by Erin Benson and facilitated largely by younger people in the community.
Benson was inspired to found With Purpose after losing her own child to cancer. While she had ideas about possible directions the organization could take, it was the young generations of people in her life who took the lead and molded it to become a youth empowerment movement.

Sam Lee, who passed away in 2016 from a rare form of childhood cancer.

Benson was pregnant with twins and only 10 days from their delivery in July 2013 when her 2-year-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. She and her husband, Mike, made the rest of Sam’s life rich and full, including temporarily moving back to her native Minnesota from South Carolina to be closer to family. While back in the Twin Cities among relatives, she realized her home support network was tremendous.

The family moved in with Benson’s aunt and uncle in Plymouth, right next door to Chris Olson and her daughters, Nicole, 10, and Rachel, 12. Sam quickly befriended the kids in the neighborhood, leaving Benson touched.

“How can I capture how valuable it was that my son had neighborhood friends to play with? I can’t, it’s impossible,” she reflected.

She said With Purpose started as a way to cope with a sense of powerlessness over losing Sam.

“There were no life-saving treatment options. So, what do you do with all that energy you would normally invest in it? We were like, let’s raise money to solve the problems that were laid out pretty clearly for us when we started asking questions, like why are there no life-saving treatment options for him,” she said.

With Purpose tackles three primary issues with childhood cancer Benson has pinpointed as needing improvement: lack of funding for research, a lack of “proof of concept” research, and a lack of incentives for pharmaceutical companies.

Funds raised by the organization support advocacy and awareness efforts to push the National Cancer Institute to designate more than the current four percent of its research budget dollars toward childhood cancer research.

The funds also support the Children’s Cancer Therapy Development Institute, which generates clinical trials from published research, and Kids V Cancer, which helped create a voucher program to incentivise cancer drug companies to develop and study certain cancer drugs for children. Since childhood cancer remains the leading cause of death in children – one in five will not survive their diagnosis – Benson’s hope is that someday, children facing the illness will have hope of their own.

Rachel Olson, Nicole Olson, and Catherine Thibault are pictured at the first annual With Purpose Fun Run in 2016. (Submitted photos)

She wasn’t sure whether she could push on when Sam died, but the neighborhood kids stepped in and took over. Olson’s daughters, along with other neighborhood youth, were instrumental in pushing the organization toward the fundraising Fun Run event. They were inspired to keep the memory of Sam alive through a good cause and help other kids suffering from cancer.

“That’s why With Purpose has become about youth empowerment, because they know how to do it. They know how to engage people,” Benson said.

Olson was impressed with the accomplishments, and both she and Benson are optimistic about how much the event can continue to grow.

“The exciting thing is that this little neighborhood race raised $10,000. It was about needing more space, where we should do it, but the foundation had been laid,” Olson said. “The goal for the race is we want more runners. Last year, we had 30 runners, and we would love to get that to 100 people. I think the goal is progress, not perfection.”

Sponsors, both local and national, among them Target, Cub Foods, Holiday and Caribou, provide raffle items for the event. Olson said most of the sponsors from the previous year have returned with increased donations. And it’s all thanks to the organized, coordinated efforts of the youth involved, including Rachel and Nicole Olson, along with their neighborhood friend, Catherine Thibault, who have done the work recruiting the sponsorships.

“They’re so organized. Rachel sends me Powerpoints with action items,” Benson said. Their patient, persistent work has resulted in acquiring most of the sponsors they’ve sought, and reflects their dedication to making the Fun Run a success.

“It felt really good, because we did all this work and had it pay off, and we’re going to do it again,” Rachel Olson said, referring to the experience of coordinating last year’s run as well as the upcoming event.

The race also features carnival games designed by the youth. Benson said they’ll sometimes send her photos of drawings of the With Purpose logo in the snow, or incorporate the organization’s colors into cupcake decorations. The youth also sell lemonade in the summer to help pay for the expenses of running the event.

She said that people in the community can also sponsor a runner, which is part of the fundraising effort. Each participant is given the option to host a fundraising webpage to gather community donations, and many have already raised hundreds of dollars.

As the Fun Run grows, so does the organization. Benson said With Purpose has begun serving youth of all ages, including a chapter providing internship opportunities on college campuses.

The students who would have been Sam’s kindergarten class are finishing an animated film project devised and put together by the students, which illustrates how people in various occupations help others. The children gathered people from the community, conducted interviews, operated the cameras, and drew illustrations that their teacher helped them animate. The film was a way to represent to them what With Purpose does for others in a way they could understand, Benson said.

While the organization is branching out to encompass all areas of youth empowerment, the common goal of fighting childhood cancer is at its core, and the Fun Run is the primary way community members can get involved. There are also mentoring opportunities available, according to Olson and Benson.

“For us, we really want to keep Sam’s spirit around us, because he’s brought us so much joy … we’re really excited for the second version to be using Crystal as its community,” Olson said.

People interested in participating are encouraged to register online at A link to donate to individual runners can be found on the same page next to the registration button.

Second annual With Purpose Kids Fun Run
When: Saturday, July 22. Registration starts at 8:30 a.m., and the race begins at 9:30 a.m.
Where: Bassett Creek Park, 6001 32nd Ave. N., Crystal
Registration: $25 per child, open to youth of all ages (0-18). Adults are welcome to run with their children, but the registration fee is for youth runners only. A quarter-mile run is available and recommended for ages 5 and under; a 1-mile run is available for ages 5 and older, and a 2-mile run is open to ages 8 and older.
All registered participants will receive a pink bandana, which was Sam’s favorite color. There will also be a carnival with food, beverages, games, music, and raffle prizes.