Running for Luca: Marathon runner gives back to local family

Boston resident running for Voorhees child with Down syndrome

Luca Zadeh, a child in Voorhees Township with Down syndrome, shows off medals he’s received from a family friend that runs marathons in his honor while also fundraising for Down syndrome organizations.

Luca Zadeh is a 13-year-old Voorhees child with Down syndrome.

Although for much of his life he’s experienced sensory issues that make it difficult to be in large crowds and often limit where he can travel, he’s more than likely the only child in the area who can say he has numerous medals from marathons spanning different continents.

Luca’s mom, Denise, attended the University of Pennsylvania during the early 2000s, eventually graduating from the Nurse Anesthesia Program in 2006. While going through the program, she learned a lot from her then-program director, Maria van Pelt, who Zadeh says was a fantastic mentor.

Shortly after graduating, Zadeh learned she would be having a third son, which was Luca, and that he would most likely be born with Down syndrome. Moving forward, the two women kept in contact and became friends past the University of Pennsylvania.

“Even after my graduation, we had been in touch and kept in pretty good contact over the months,” Zadeh said of van Pelt. “Having been my program director, she was serving in that mentor kind of role, but after that we just got to be friends.”

Zadeh shared the news about Luca with van Pelt shortly after graduation. From that point on, van Pelt, who now lives in Boston, felt compelled to stay in contact with Luca and his mother.

“After she had shared with me that Luca would have Down syndrome and I continued to hear about all the health problems he was going through … we ended up really keeping in touch in terms of how they were doing and how she was supporting him so he would thrive,” van Pelt noted.

“As a mother myself and as a nurse, I became very much inspired and impressed by her dedication to care for Luca and advocate for his needs on behalf of a child that didn’t have the ability to advocate for himself,” she added.

“I think, ultimately, that’s what really led me to also want to be an advocate on Luca’s behalf. I was really inspired by all of that work that Denise was doing for him.”

One of the ways van Pelt has been an advocate for Luca is through running. Although she didn’t run cross country or track and field during her early education, she started to get involved in the sport in her late 20s.

Over time, she began running marathons — as many as three a year — before injuries started to limit her participation. Later this spring, van Pelt will run her third Boston Marathon.

After accumulating numerous running medals that ended up collecting dust in her house, van Pelt decided in recent years to run specifically for Luca — raising funds for those like him — and to give the boy any medals she wins.

“I wanted to find passion and meaning behind my running,” she explained. “I had so many medals, and I’m not somebody who hangs them up or anything. So I thought about how I could do some good and who would really appreciate these.

“I wanted to be able to run for somebody and give them my medals.”

By running the Boston Marathon, van Pelt was able to raise $10,000 for the Trisomy 21 Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which offers resources for Down syndrome families. The Pennsylvania Association of Nurse Anesthetists — of which van Pelt was a member while at Penn — also agreed to make two $10,000 donations in Luca’s name, with one benefitting the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, an organization of families that works to enhance the lives of Down syndrome children.

Van Pelt also plans one additional contribution.

“What I would love is for Luca to have a Boston Marathon medal,” she noted. “I’m running this for him; he’s what has inspired me for races in the past and he continues to inspire me.”

Because she lives in Boston, van Pelt has only met Luca once, during the Zadeh family’s trip to Boston to visit Luca’s older brother at college. But the two will meet again, if possible, during the Boston Marathon.

As van Pelt and Zadeh prepare for the reunion, the latter can’t help but feel thankful for what her friend has done over the years to raise awareness and support Luca.

“It’s astounding to me; Maria is very much a giver, that’s who she is,” Zadeh said. “She was always very supportive and helpful, even before Luca was born and she was more so just a friend and mentor to me.

“But now in doing all of this years later, I’ve just been blown away with her willingness to advocate for Luca in this way.”