Smiles generate the energy that fuels Ainsley’s Angels.
They were the motivation to create the charitable organization, and they are what have driven its growth across the country, including to the 21st Myrtle Beach Marathon on Saturday.
Ainsley’s Angels pairs runners in road races with individuals living with severe disabilities and illnesses, and the runners push the riders in specially designed three-wheel wheelchairs, also referred to as chariots.
The mission is one of inclusion for a segment of society that is often excluded from activities, and the joy both the runners and riders receive from the experience is evident on their faces.
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“When [spectators] are cheering, they’re cheering for her. She’s smiling and happy and proud,” said Elizabeth Whitley of Darlington, who takes part in Ainsley’s Angels with her disabled daughter, Mariah Meredith. “You can see it in their smile. Smiling for them is a big deal, and these races make them smile. And that just makes you want to do it more and more and more.”
This will be the first year Ainsley’s Angels teams will participate in the Myrtle Beach Marathon’s Saturday races, though one duo participated in the affiliated 5-kilometer run on a Friday last year.
Four teams from the Carolinas will be on the course Saturday. Three will participate in the half marathon, and a four-person relay team will push a rider the full 26.2-mile marathon distance.
“It’s truly a message of inclusion. It’s all about the rider,” Whitley said. “The more people who witness it and see the joy it brings to their face, they want to help in some way.”
The organization is named after Ainsley Rossiter, the middle child of Lori and U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Kim Rossiter’s three children who had a rare terminal illness that slowly caused paralysis.
Ainsley gave a radiant smile when she went for her first jog during a local road race in 2008, and she went on to participate in more than 100 races with her father and sometimes other pushers before dying at the age of 12 in February 2016.
There are now approximately 60 Ainsley’s Angels chapters in 32 states that are run by ambassadors.
Shelly and Michael Warner of Longs have been the ambassadors for South Carolina since starting the chapter in 2015.
Though they don’t have a special needs child, they have a nephew with cerebral palsy and Michael suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident that left him paralyzed. He beat the odds to walk again, though he doesn’t run, so they are sympathetic to the Ainsley’s Angels cause.
They were researching programs to bring to South Carolina such as Team Hoyt, which was started by Dick Hoyt, who has run more than 1,000 races with his quadriplegic son, Rick, and came across Ainsley’s Angels.
Riders can be any age. They have been as young as 2 and old as seniors. Five kilometers is the predominant distance for members, though teams participate in numerous endurance events, including triathlons.
Though parents of riders are often the pushers, other runners register to participate. Shelly Warner said 329 Angels are part of the South Carolina program, including 102 riders, 210 runners and 17 volunteers known as Guardian Angels who don’t run but assist the organization in other ways.
She said 10,000 people participate nationally in the all-volunteer program, spurred by strong support from military members who start new chapters in locations where they are stationed.
“We have heard many comments from runners who have participated and they tell us it has changed their life in regards to running and gives them a whole new purpose for running and racing to do it for someone else,” Warner said. “The primary goal for our runners is the experience of our riders. It’s a fabulous opportunity for someone to be involved in something bigger.”
The races can have a profound effect on the riders. Warner often pushes a girl from Charleston named Kylee, and when she first met her, Kylee was very shy and struggled in social settings, especially around adults and strangers. Kylee now allows new runners to push her and has become more involved in activities at school.
“This child has grown so much,” Warner said. “It’s one example how racing with Ainsley’s Angels has given a family so much.”
Whitley’s 23-year-old daughter has a disorder that causes neuromuscular deficiencies and also is blind. “So cheering is really big for her,” Whitley said.
They travel extensively to participate in races and have run in two Marine Corps Marathons in Washington, D.C., and “countless” half marathons over the past four years.
“Since I’m my daughter’s runner, it gives us bonding time,” said Whitley, a shift engineer with Duke Energy who isn't participating this week because of her schedule. “She can’t do everything that I do. So it gives us something to do together and we have great bonding moments. It gives her an outlet to experience part of a normal life.”
The spirit of Ainsley’s Angels pervades races. Whitley said her daughter weighs 105 pounds and her chair weighs another 40 pounds, and when she comes to hills on courses — which isn’t an issue in Myrtle Beach — other runners will often help her push to the crest.
In Myrtle Beach
The Carolinas team that will be running the marathon relay is Team Parker from North Carolina. Two of the runners are his parents and two are experienced Angels runners.
The half marathon teams are Team Kylee, which includes an experienced Angels runner from North Carolina who is paired with Kylee for the first time, and possibly a second runner; Team Hunter, a N.C. mother-daughter tandem with two other runners; and Team Faith from the S.C. Upstate, which will include Warner and another runner or two who have never pushed Faith.
A fifth group, Team Daniel from the Upstate, was registered to run Daniel’s first full marathon, but he has experienced a health crisis and has been hospitalized.
The S.C. Angels chapter has taken part in three races this year and has races lined up each weekend in March. The schedule will be busy until the summer months and picks back up again when it cools off in the fall.
Warner’s chapter has 18 race chairs that it provides at races it attends. The cost of chairs starts at about $1,000 and custom chairs generally cost between $3,500 and $6,000.
Fundraising includes a second annual golf tournament on July 7 at Crown Park Golf Club, and donations from businesses and through the AinsleysAngels.org website.
Parents and riders often use Crowdrise.com to raise funds for chairs. Whitley and Mariah Meredith raised $5,000 in four days on the site to pay for their race chair.
No doubt eliciting one of those fueling smiles from Mariah.