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Going Home for the 25th Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger

In October 2005 I traveled back to my childhood home to celebrate the 25th anniversary Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger. More than a race, the event is an example of how a small community can make a huge impact on the lives of people close to home—and in places most of us will never see.

A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens

In 1981, a small group of people in the village of Croton-on-Hudson, New York were concerned about hunger. Hunger they could see on faces of people in their quiet community, and hunger they could see on the faces of people enduring famine in Africa on the other side of the planet.

What could they, people of little numbers and means, do to help people in their own back yard and people in a world far away who were hungry?

Pastor Sandra Myers of the Asbury United Methodist Church posed that question to her congregation one Sunday. There were a lot of great suggestions, but nothing really caught fire. After a few minutes a woman not entirely sure of her idea stood up and said, "What about a run against hunger?"

That woman was Susan Williams, my mother.

Mom was a long distance runner. Her friends were runners too. She knew that other runners might come from New York City (which was only an hour and a half away) to participate in a foot race.

As the discussion continued, a ripple of energy moved through the small congregation as the idea seemed more and more plausible. Some people were starry-eyed and some were overly skeptical, but in the end all had an idea about how it could work. At 8 years old I thought I could help raise some money by donating a portion of my lemonade sales or maybe sell some small cakes I could make in my Easy-Bake oven.

Like some kind of Divine luck, it seemed like every person in the small town had something unique to give at just the right moment to keep the project afloat. And they all gave what they could no matter how small it was. Churches, synagogues, schools, and businesses all chipped in to help get the race off the ground that first year. They donated t-shirts and printing, held bake sales, and found business colleagues to donate prizes and awards. But the biggest gift this small town gave was time and hope.

Before anyone could comprehend their success, thousands of people descended on Croton for race day. Beyond New York City, runners came from as far away as Australia when they heard the story behind the race. The 6.2 mile route curved its way through historic scenes and breathtaking views of the Croton reservoir in Autumn. The race in Croton would quickly become a favorite race for many runners who would return year after year to participate.

Changing the world

That first year, and every year after, one small village did something about the hunger they could see on faces of children in their quiet community and hunger they could see on the faces of people enduring famine in Africa on the other side of the planet. In twenty five years the race has raised more than $300,000. Not bad for a community of 7,000 people.

The Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger race was named after Harry Chapin, an activist and folk singer who died in a tragic car crash in 1981. The money raised by the race benefits Harry's charity, World Hunger Year and other local charities working to end hunger and poverty around Croton.


Going home

The memories of my childhood in Croton are crystal clear. My mom, brother and I rediscovered old places of wonder, hard-coded in our neuron pathways. Like a good pack of hounds we sniffed our way back to friends' houses, ponds where we swam and parks where we played.

There were, of course, a few small changes. Our favorite candy store Eliot's is now a Yoga studio. The once seedy bars in town are now real estate offices. The first house my parents bought for $17,000 seems far out of reach compared to a house listed for $500,000 on the same street. The Croton Dam is now closed to car traffic but is still as breathtaking as it ever was. Capriccio pizza is still as good as I remembered and now has a Capriccio II location. According to the old locals it's a great improvement. I can still see the Capriccio brothers tossing dough and arguing with each other in Italian, perplexed that a little girl would want pizza with no cheese. (I have since been converted to cheese-smothered pizza.)

Down by Senasqua park a boat dock full of large house boats seems ill-placed next to the small rusty schooners still bobbing up and down in the Hudson. The aptly named "Dockuminiums" are close by the condominiums of Half Moon Bay, built on Croton Point and partly on the site of an old landfill. A nice walking path crosses over the top of the now-closed and painted-over graffiti tunnel that once led to the park. The trail was full of well-dressed yuppies on the way to their condos. I wonder what they would think of the spray painted "Honk if You're Horny" sign that used to greet park visitors?

The largely blue collar working class families that built the Croton Dam and stayed on to spawn the small village of Croton have long since moved from the area. It's too expensive for most of those families to live there now. Only people who bought homes a long time ago can afford to stay. But many of them are still making the decision to leave Croton because their friends are all gone. And who of the original Crotonites can have a serious friendship with someone willing to park their boat in a place called a Dockuminium? Call it the gentrification of small town America.

Before the trip I was worried that my childhood memories would be replaced with visions of suburbia, SUVs, and the golf course that now occupies the beloved woods behind our old house. I am happy to say that my memories remain intact. They are permanent spots on the horizon, even if they exist in the past they are beacons to help me remember where I come from when I feel a little lost. Croton will always be my first, and most loved, home.

A thank you to old and new friends

We saw a lot of old friends the weekend we were in Croton for the 25th Anniversary race. Pastor Myers and her husband came up from South Carolina; Dot, Paul and Grace still live in Croton and help organize the race; Kate, who ran from home, ran in the race, and then ran back home again (what a tank,) and the Gillis' who have been the wheels that keep the race running every year.

We met some new faces too. Margaret, a bright star, the Reverand Osgood and his glorious wife who put up with our comings and goings at the parsonage all weekend and many other wonderful people we now consider an extension of our family. Thanks for making us all feel like we never left home!

Photo: 25th Anniversary Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger commemorative poster by Jerry Pinckney. For more photographs from Croton and the race visit the Going Home photo essay.

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