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Notre Dame to host fourth annual Run Forrest Run 5/10k race

| Friday, March 23, 2018

Four years ago, then-incoming freshman Lauren McKee sent an email to the Gary Sinise Foundation (GSF), a charity dedicated to serving veterans, active military and first responders, explaining that she was a freshman at Notre Dame and hoping to be added to a volunteer list. Two hours later, she got a call from the foundation’s director of outreach, Billy Wagasy.

“[Wagasy] was a former Navy SEAL before he became the director of outreach at the Gary Sinise Foundation, but he also played football here under Lou Holtz for four years, so because of that Notre Dame connection it got passed to his desk,” McKee said. “While we were talking, we kind of came up with this idea for a charity run that would benefit the Gary Sinise Foundation.”

A few weeks later, McKee said she happened to meet a member of the Notre Dame Air Force ROTC, and she mentioned the idea to him, asking whether ROTC would want to get involved. The student said yes, and then began to work with both McKee and other members of the ROTC service groups to plan the first annual Run Forrest Run 5/10k race on Notre Dame’s campus, she said. 

“From there this crazy idea took off, and it’s been four years where it’s just kind of grown exponentially. We now have a virtual race, and we have people who have run across the country, and this year we actually have people running internationally,” McKee said. “It’s just absolutely incredible to see the support that we’ve had.”

Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in the beloved movie “Forrest Gump,” created the charity in 2011 after years of supporting veterans and active military through his Lt. Dan Band at military bases and benefit concerts. While the charity provides support in many different ways to servicemen and women and their families, its main program is called R.I.S.E., or Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment, which provides specially built homes, modified vehicles and mobility devices for wounded veterans.

“A lot of times when veterans come back who are severely injured, it’s not just a case of having limited mobility outside their homes. There’s also a lot of things that go into limiting their independence in their homes,” McKee said. “They’re unable to reach things in the house, the bathrooms are usually too small, there’s just a lot of things that go into making their lives a lot more difficult. So the R.I.S.E. program works to support empowerment and make sure they can be independent.”

By the end of this year, GSF will have built 65 adapted smart homes for wounded veterans. During its first year, McKee said the race raised money to build one such home for Sgt. Michael Frazier, a marine who lost both legs and much of the use of his right arm while deployed in Afghanistan in 2011. His wife, McKee said, credited the home with his ability to fully participate in his life.

“It’s allowed him to be a better father and a better husband … because the house is specially adapted so that he can access it, so that it’s specifically designed for his needs,” McKee said.

The Notre Dame ROTC service groups have played a large role in planning the race each year, with at least one representative from each branch on the planning committee and many more students volunteering and participating.

“The ROTC kids were fully in, and this wouldn’t have been possible without them,” McKee said. “Every single person who has worked on the race committee or even just volunteering and spreading the word about it — every single one of them has made sure that this has been possible.”

To date, the Run Forrest Run race has raised over $35,000 to benefit GSF in the past three years, and McKee said she predicts that this year’s total may exceed $20,000, far surpassing her original expectations.

McKee said over 450 runners will be on campus, with another 70 running nationally and internationally. She said she points to Notre Dame’s guiding statement, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” as the reason the race has been so successful.

“I think immediately there was that easy pairing between the mission of the Gary Sinise Foundation, and the incredible willingness to serve that the people of Notre Dame have,” McKee said.

This year, McKee said, the race is excited to honor U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Chad Watson, a GSF smart home recipient and 2016 MBA graduate of Notre Dame. While she is sad this is her last time on the race committee, McKee said she is confident in the abilities of next year’s committee.

“Every year I’m blown away by the people I get to meet and all the stories I get to hear,” McKee said. “None of it would have happened without any of the people who were there. I just really lucked out that I got to meet so many incredible people who were so supportive and so willing to throw everything into this crazy idea.”

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