OCONTO FALLS — In recent weeks, shouts of encouragement have been heard all around Oconto Falls as the St. Anthony School Running and Walking Club clocks mile after mile in preparation for the Oconto Falls Dash O.F. Color and the Bellin Run of Green Bay.
Organizer Jamie Haines said the club has been an outstanding way to keep kids active while getting them involved in community activities.
“We wanted to keep the kids busy by getting them together outside and away from technology for a little while,” Haines said. “I am amazed at how much they want to run and how far they are getting.”
Haines said the inspiration for the Running and Walking Club came at the end of the school’s 2015-2016 basketball season after a discussion with one of the players.
“I asked her if she was going to miss playing basketball, and she told me she wished she could play all year and started wiping tears away,” Haines said. “I thought that we had to come up with something to keep the kids busy.”
Haines, who is a recreational walker, brought her idea for a running and walking club to St. Anthony School’s principal, Kate Sayers.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Sayers said. “It’s a good introduction into a very healthy activity for the kids, and participating in runs like the Dash O.F. Color and the Bellin (Run) helps them build ties with the larger community.”
To help organize the club, Haines contacted Bellin Health, which provided her with information on creating proper practice schedules and programs for its event. Haines then recruited Oconto Falls High School alum Travis Kopke to coach the group. Kopke was a member of the high school track and cross country teams and currently runs half marathons.
“This is kind of a social thing for the kids just to be with everybody else,” Kopke said. “For some, it’s about being part of a club, and for others, it’s about being somewhat competitive.”
With everything in place, the only remaining task was to get kids to sign up, and Haines could not believe the response she received.
“I thought maybe we would get 10 to sign up, especially with this being the first year,” Haines said. “Then we kept getting more and more slips, and I thought, ‘Don’t get overwhelmed.’ We ended up with 28 kids from second through fifth grade.” St. Anthony has a total of 30 students.
For fifth-grader Natalie Greetan, 10, the club was a chance for social bonding.
“All of my friends were going to be in it,” Greetan said.
For others, like fifth-grader Hailey Kopke, 11, it was an opportunity to follow in their relatives’ footsteps.
“My dad is a runner and he did track,” Kopke said. “I thought it would be fun to try.”
Today the group can be seen doing countless laps around town, particularly Memorial Field and the town’s West Side Trail, which snakes along the river, through woods and to the beach.
To help encourage the kids to push themselves, each mile they achieve is rewarded with a certificate.
“Every time they get an award it’s a pretty big deal,” Haines said. “We even have an awards board at the school and they sign their names underneath the mile marker they hit.”
When practice is over, the group walks back to St. Anthony School, where parent volunteers often provide snacks and beverages. “We have had great help from the parents,” Haines said. “They help with practice and encourage the kids.”
With the Dash O.F. Color coming up May 28, Haines said they are trying to win the award for largest group. Between students, family and community members, the club currently has over 60 people signed up for the race.
“It would be really neat to win the biggest group the first year we are in it,” Haines said. Following the color run, 18 people will partake in the Bellin Run June 11. Though the Bellin is a longer race at just over six miles, Kopke said he knows the kids will be ready.
“Some are realizing they can do more than they ever thought they could do,” Kopke said. “I see them growing in terms of pushing themselves each time they go out there.”
Sayers said she is very proud of her students and the people that made the club possible.
“I can’t say enough about what Jamie, Travis and the parents have done with this club,” Sayers said. “The way they set it up provides a safe and comfortable way to get kids in the habit of not only exercising but supporting their community, which in turn represents our school in a very positive way.”