Back in April 2009, I was a few years into the routine of caring for my severely autistic, non-verbal son Jack. He was 5 1/2 and beyond the work, I was grieving the thoughts of his future, all the “typical” things he’d never experience as a kid and I’d never experience as a parent. Meanwhile, I was also discovering that I could run marathons moderately well. I had personal-best at the time of 3:00:05 and I was chasing a sub-3 (2:59:59 or better). I put in lots of effort to improve my best time by six seconds and I wasn’t getting there. But I was doing things like running a 3:04 on Saturday and a 3:09 the next day. And ultimately, it hit me — I’m wasting so much effort over six seconds when I have this gift of recovery I can use somehow to do some good with.
So I sat down and talked to my wife, Tiffany. I had an idea — I could run 60 marathons in 2010, try to use the natural abilities I was given to raise money for charity and make some good out of what Jack goes through. This wasn’t something I was really asking her about, though. It was an idea, and it either had full immediate buy-in or it would never be brought up again. This wasn’t a weekend in Vegas with the boys that I beg for permission for. This was a year-long family commitment. I’d still work my job full-time and do everything I could with the family, but the travel and the work towards the charity efforts would be a grind.
She didn’t even blink. “Do it! Don’t NOT do it and always wonder, ‘what if?'”
So, I created a foundation, the Operation Jack Autism Foundation, and got 501(c)3 status from the IRS. And to be very clear about the foundation, the money raised all went to autism-related charities. It’s never benefitted Jack or my family. The purpose was to help others, through Jack, so that the struggles he will always face will ultimately help other kids.
I launched my site on July 1, 2009 announcing my goals for 2010, and started working on logistics, fundraising, social media — you name it, it became a job on top of my job. I ran the first race on January 1, 2010 in the Houston area and more-or-less tackled the year without a plan. It was an exercise in faith for me. I trusted God, and just went with it day by day.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.1 Peter 4:10
I was out of the office 19 days that year traveling, but worked remotely and got my job done. I was home for each of my kids’ birthday parties. And my anniversary, Valentine’s Day, my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. I was so fortunate to meet so many wonderful people all over the country. It was an amazing experience. I was fortunate to stay healthy. I did the best I could to manage my body and held up fairly well. My median time was a 3:21, which is ok, but it showed that I was going all-out every time. I felt like that was my job that I owed to my donors — they were in awe of what I was doing, the least I could do was give it my best every time out.
The tally for the year ended up being 61 marathons, because I added Memphis in December and raised money for St. Jude’s while I did that. In 2010 I raised about $88K (with costs of about $25K). At the end of the year, the last race I had on the calendar fell through and we put on a marathon with about two months of planning to make sure there was that final race on the final weekend. We named that race the Operation Jack Marathon. It was an amazing day. December 26, 2010. We needed 10 people out there for it to be an official race, about 30 people for it to be a breakeven financially, yet we got 151 runners out there. It ended up raising about $10K of that $88K.
I went into the year thinking it was a one-and-done, and I was excited to get my life back when that year was over. But at the race, somebody asked me if I was going to put it on again the next year. I hadn’t even thought about that, but … why not? So I did it again in 2011 and got 350 people out there and it probably netted $20K or $25K. At that point, it just became an annual fundraiser.
I started working with organizations in different parts of the country to put on races. I had a race in Kansas City. Another in Las Vegas. I helped jump start somebody in my current home state of Pennsylvania to put on a race to benefit local autism-related charities and she’s about to put on her 9th annual race. I created fundraising teams at races on the east coast after my family relocated to Pennsylvania (solely because of autism) with proceeds going to local beneficiaries.
Tiff told me at the beginning, “don’t NOT do it and always wonder ‘what if'” and I’ll never wonder. But now, I know the final extent of the reach of this endeavor, because it’s over.
I’m going through the legal process of shutting down my foundation for three reasons, which combine to make the decision pretty straightforward for me. In no particular order:
- It’s extremely difficult to put on a race in the Covid era. I’m a small non-profit, my margins were already pretty thin by the end, and I’m not in a position to be able to withstand a cancelation or postponement. Runners look to the cancelation/deferrment policy when registering now, and that’s just not something I can do, making my sole fundraiser — a marathon — virtually impossible.
- Tiffany and I amicably separated in July after 22+ years of marriage. This was a family endeavor from the beginning. It would have been absolutely impossible for all of this to happen without her rock-solid support, and continuing with us not being together any more is just not something I have any desire to do.
- Today is Jack’s 18th birthday. This started when he was 5 years old. He’s now legally an adult. Everybody initially rallied around the cute little kid, I feel like that “kid” era is over.
To me, combining those three, it’s just clear to me that it’s time to move on. It’s my past and it’s time to move to the next chapter of my life. It’s been an amazing dozen years. It would take me forever to recall all the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had as a result of this, and I don’t even want to start listing things because I know I’d leave somebody out. There were so many of you wonderful people! However, I do have a great memory and every time I see a comment or have an interaction with somebody I met along the way, I remember exactly when and where I caught up with them.
In all, I think the fundraising we did (both here and things I’ve done personally thanks to the network I’ve built through this) has resulted in about $200K going to small charities that benefitted from the help.
So, I don’t have to wonder what if. I’ll always know. And I’ll always be grateful to every one of you who participated or supported my efforts in one way or another.
That’s all I’ve got. Thank you all for everything.
Congratulations on job well done. Next adventure.
Pam Zelaya says
I remember when you started Operation Jack. I couldn’t believe how many marathons you ran that year! Kudos to you and all you’ve done for autism! Good luck to you and whatever your future holds!