Colleen Bolin when she ran for Loyola University.

In summers growing up in Oak Park, I’d run at night when it was cooler. My dad would ride next to me on his bike. On the home stretch, he’d be beside me, encouraging me to finish strong. 

Now as an adult living in the same neighborhood I grew up in, I finish fast on the same street. Every time, I think of Dad on the bike beside me. 

Four years after I started running competitively as a youth, and at one of my most successful times as a youth runner, I lost my dad. I was at a track meet in California when he was in an accident back home. For a long time, I carried guilt that it was while I was doing something I loved — something Dad loved for me — that I wasn’t able to be with him when he died. If my mom and I hadn’t been in California at the meet, would he still be with us? 

My dad’s death knocked me off course. It felt like the future was stolen from me in an instant. Why me? Why now? 

In the middle of my grief and guilt, there was running. In running, and in life, there is pain. There is inevitable discomfort. Running taught me to push through. To keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when I’m not my best, even when it hurts. It helped give me back a foundation. 

Today, for many of us and our children, our lives have been knocked off course. In a short period of time, kids have abruptly lost so many things they know and love. They may be wondering: Why me? Why now? 

Running can help them move forward, manage their grief, find joy and practice moving through this discomfort. It can bring value, consistency, amazing relationships and rewarding experiences that will help them through and shape how they move forward. 

That’s why I started JETS. 

In Illinois, 40 percent of children experience at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), ranging from the death of a guardian to witnessing violence, divorce or living in financial difficulty. ACEs have lifelong ripple effects on children’s health. Engaging in supportive relationships and learning to overcome challenges in sport are shown to create positive outcomes after children experience trauma. 

JETS offers youth regardless of financial resources a place to create a strong foundation for themselves through running that will help them through adverse events now — and for the rest of their lives. 

Now more than ever, in the absence of organized sports, kids need an outlet. At a time of high anxiety, isolation and uncertainty, it can decrease stress and increase happiness, and help kids focus and problem solve. 

Starting in July, JETS will offer free online programming for all youth in our community. While adhering to public health guidelines, we’ll also offer an in-person running program for small groups of youth. Our goal is to connect as many children as possible with an opportunity to run. 

When I started running competitively, my first two pairs of track spikes were donated to me. I had to fundraise to afford traveling to national meets. My community always supported me. I’m turning to my community again now. On June 12, I’ll turn 40 and will be running a birthday mile to help give all kids in our community access to a sport that will teach them about who they are and what they are capable of. A sport that will help them learn, together and on our own, that we can get through hard things. We just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Thank you for considering sponsoring a JETS runner this summer. For as little as $5, you can help spark a lifelong love of running for a child in our community. To donate and get access to the video of my birthday mile, visit www.oakparkjets.org. 

Colleen Bolin is the founder of JETS and a longtime Oak Park resident. She ran for OPRF High School, Loyola University Chicago and competed on the professional USA Track & Field circuit from 2007 to 2012. She has held coaching roles in a variety of sports, from youth basketball to college cross country and track.

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