ROCHESTER, NH — Today it’s part of the routine. Back when it started in 1996, the “Running Nuns” of St. Charles Children’s Home were just trying to find something to cool down an explosive behavior crisis.
“It’s part of what we do as a family,” said Sister Mary Agnes. “Running is part of our daily routine. So when (the kids) come here, just as they are introduced to every other thing as part of our routine, they’re introduced to running. ”
St. Charles Children’s Home is a group home for troubled kids (ages 3 to 12) located across from the Rochester Common in an 1860s Victorian mansion. The children come from troubled families to live at the home with the understanding that someday they will be either adopted or reunited with their families. The home has developed an identity through running. The kids run with the nuns — Daughters of Mary Mother of Healing Love — and in 1997 a road race was started to benefit the home. The children and some of the nuns run in the race. Now in its 15th year, the St. Charles Children’s Home 5K road race is a big fundraiser for the home, raising $12,000 in 2010. This year’s race is on Sept. 5, 9 a.m., at Pease Tradeport.
“The running program started because we have troubled kids here,” said Sister Mary Agnes, the road race coordinator. “The kids come from difficult backgrounds. Many who come have seen or witnessed violence or have been treated with violence by adults. We try to redirect that and teach them new behaviors to replace the old violent behaviors.”
But in 1996 the home had a crisis on its hands. The nuns had some very difficult kids and there was extreme misbehavior at the home that led the sisters to sit down with the children to see if they could figure out a way to channel that negative energy in a positive direction. They filled up a white board with all kinds of ideas, and one of the ideas was running; although it started as hiking.
“One of the biggest troublemakers,” recalled Sister Mary Agnes, “was a girl. Sister Maximilian took her hiking every day. This girl had so much energy that in the progression of the summer the hikes started becoming little jogs.”
The two would run and then walk, run and then walk. By the end of the summer they were doing three to four miles in the woods every day. Where they had been hiking, they were now running every day.
“The boys got jealous,” Sister Mary Agnes said with a smile. “Sister Maximilian was bragging: ‘Rosie can outrun any of you. She ran one mile today. She ran two miles today.’ The boys got jealous.”
So they all went over to the Spaulding High School track and ran around the track. The boys said they could outrun Rosie, but as they ran around the track, they dropped off one by one. The oldest boy kept going. Finally it got dark and Sister Maximilian stopped them. The boys were ready to die, but Rosie wasn’t even winded.
“That was the beginning of involving all of the children in the running program,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “We saw that it was a benefit to all of them.”
All the children were interested. The nuns trained them, starting with walking as Rosie had been trained. And then worked them up to running. That fall of 1996 they ran their first 5K. Sister Mary Rose picked up a brochure from the Red’s Shoe Barn 5K. Her feeling was that if they were running with the children every day, why not try a road race. At the time, the nuns and the children were running four or so miles, so they were covering a longer distance than a 5K.
“That way they’ll see lots of people run, too,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “They’ll see that this is something that people do. It was just a wonderful success.”
The kids loved running in the road races and they did well. Sister Mary Agnes recalled them winning many of the medals in the kid categories because at the time there weren’t many children running.
“I think our program kind of changed the culture of running,” she said. “As the years went by, you saw more and more parents running with their kids in races. You saw more and more kids running and a lot of kids are faster than our kids.”
There was good news coverage of the Running Nuns and the St. Charles Eagles (the kids’ running name). The sisters ran in their full habits and the children became recognizable through their red tank tops with St. Charles Eagles emblazoned across the front. Sister Mary Agnes believes that coverage encouraged parents to run in races with their kids.
“I think it’s been great,” she said. “Because now you have lots of kids at the races.”
For the St. Charles Children’s Home, running was an experiment that exceeded all expectations.
“We didn’t know how successful it would be,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “But it really was successful. That group of kids in 1996 was a very violent group and we often had to use passive restraints with them. We had to put them in safety holds so they couldn’t hurt themselves and others. It’s a really difficult intervention and not something you wanted to be doing.”
But once the kids started running, there was a marked decline in the use of restraints.
“And we’ve never used passive restraints since to the degree we had before running,” she said. “It really does help the kids channel some of that excess energy in positive ways.”
Today with running as part of the home’s daily routine, the kids run before school.
“I think it helps make the school day a bit more successful,” Sister Mary Agnes said. “They come in; they’ve already done their morning run. So they’re able to be a bit calmer and a bit more ready to focus on school.”
Registration and race number pickup will be from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 5 with the 5K starting at 9 a.m. A children’s Fun Run will follow after the finish of the 5K road race. For more information visit www.runningnuns.com.
(c)2011 the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)
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