Meridith Daniel helps kids become confident runners and make new friends through the nonprofit organization.
By KRYSTAL NURSE
The Healthy Kids Running Series is a national nonprofit organization with locations throughout New Jersey that aims to provide kids with a place to run freely and make new friends. The Mantua and Mullica Hill location has been around since 2015, and the current coordinator, Meridith Daniel, joined in the spring of this past year.
“My friend took it over in the fall of 2017 and she felt like she wasn’t putting her whole heart and soul into it, and she thought ‘who’s crazy enough to take this on?’” said Daniel. “And she thought of me.”
Daniel originally wasn’t a runner, but she grew into running following college because of the community that surrounds it. She has known about the nonprofit since its start and asked her oldest son if he’d be interested in it.
“I never wanted to really push my kids into doing this because kids will likely rebel, so I never pushed them,” said Daniel. “Now, my oldest son is running cross country at Clearview Regional Middle School.”
The program, she said, currently has around 200 kids signed up from across the area from ages 2 to 14.
“Our races are age appropriate so the 2- and 3-year-olds are running 50 yards and they’re out there doing their stretches,” said Daniel. “We have them on a field, 50 yards is measured out, and the parents are at the end watching them run with their binkies and stuffed animals. It’s really cute.”
Older kids run a mile, and Daniel added it is not necessarily about how fast they can run, but to get them out and get a fair amount of exercise. If a child is interested in receiving training to become a better runner, Daniels said it will be provided to them.
“There was a child that came across the finish line in tears, and as a mom, I hate seeing that,” said Daniel. “At that age, I was not a runner. So I reached out to the parents and asked if I could try something new with them.”
She worked with the young girl by having her do interval training on the field. She had the girl running for one minute and walking the next to help her with not only her time, but to also feel good when running.
Working with the children is a process for her and the volunteers because they recognize each child does not benefit from the same training, and some are more naturally athletic than the others.
“It’s not like a training program, it’s more of getting out there, being with people and having fun,” said Daniel.
The kids are also given the opportunity to make new friends during the series while also learning about how to be a good runner and picking up healthy habits.
“I love the fact that they’re making friends because they’re seeing people they know from school,” said Daniel. “They’re also becoming friends with the ones they meet at the races and they see them year after year.”
For parents, she said they’re looking to get their kids out and away from the TV or video games on a Sunday night and be active. Parents are also given a chance to run a mile race at the end of the five-week series.
While they do not have any plans to expand to one of the fun runs or gym partnerships, Daniel said they do make an effort to provide healthy eating habits to the runners.
“I’m involved with the Bullock Garden project, which is over in Glassboro, that brings gardens to schools, and I try to incorporate that into healthy eating and sharing ideas with the children,” said Daniel.
She added the organization is something she hopes the kids will become attached to and want to come back every year as they run more races with each other and develop a love for running.
“I think that the best example that kids can have are their parents, so if the parents set a good example for the kids and show them that this is something that’s enjoyable, the kids will likely buy into it,” said Daniel.
Barring any inclement weather, the Healthy Kids Running Series of Mullica Hill and Mantua is expecting to end on Oct. 21, with the trophy ceremony and final race. Daniels added registration remains open from the first race, up until the end for a fee on www.HealthyKidsRunningSeries.org and selecting “Mullica Hill.”