AMESBURY —- The next time a friend offers you a suggestion, perhaps the wise choice may be to take it. It's worked wonders for Amesbury's Stephanie Menezes.
The summer before her freshman year at Amesbury High, Menezes was convinced to join the cross country team by her friend, Meagan Gallagher, and although she has since transferred to Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., Menezes has not stopped running.
Now a senior at Brewster, Menezes has become as much a running entrepreneur as she has an athlete. In addition to helping create a winter track team at Brewster, the 17-year-old has also started a nonprofit organization called Run4Fun that is operating youth cross country camps and is scheduled to helm its 2nd Annual Amesbury Run4Fun Road Races on Aug. 29.
Run4Fun's mission is to introduce the sport of running to elementary and middle school students and to teach them how to stay healthy through running by promoting self-esteem, confidence, self-improvement and teamwork.
"Our top priority is to let the kids have fun and to create a running habit for the rest of their lives," she said.
The idea for Run4Fun came about during the advent of the 2009 summer when Menezes found herself searching for an innovative way to serve her community.
She knew that Amesbury didn't have a youth running program, so upon offering up the idea to Kathy Crowley, the director of Amesbury Recreation, in the second week of June, the design was met with slight trepidation.
The Amesbury Recreation summer packet had already been printed and released for the public. Although the odds of recruiting a strong number of interested youths were low, Crowley and Menezes went ahead with the plan and sent out fliers to area families.
By the time the program started during the last week of June, Run4Fun had 15 youths on board. By the end, they had 23.
With the assistance of Crowley and Pam Houck, a personal trainer at Latitude Sports Club and a Winner's Circle runner who helps Menezes with the nonprofit aspect, Run4Fun is in the midst of its second year and third Run4Fun Youth Cross Country Program at Amesbury's Woodsom Farm.
Slated for an hour and a half each day (9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.), the 2010 Run4Fun camp is offering two sessions. The summer's first ran from July 6 to July 23, and the second and current session is running Monday through Thursday until Aug. 20.
Assisting Menezes is a veritable army of local high school runners that includes Newburyport's John Stansel, Keith Conway, Chris Jayne and Chris Suprin, and Amesbury's Peter Siess (who coined the name, Run4Fun), Deryn Zahoruiko, Ed Welsh, Alissa Heitmann, Jessica McFadden and Gallagher.
Run4Fun's coaches appear to be having just as much fun as their campers.
"It's a good time and it gets kids into running," said Conway, a junior. "I was never involved in something like this when I was younger, so I guess it's pretty unique."
"It's awesome," said Jayne, a senior. "You have fun with the kids and it's even better when you realize that they're enjoying it as well. It's cool to see how much of a difference in their times there is between the start of the session and the end of the session.
"Stephanie's working real hard with it and she's doing a great job to make sure the kids are having a good time."
The opportunity to run as a youth is something these coaches didn't exactly have growing up.
"It's such a great opportunity to help coach the next generation. None of them will be in high school while any of these coaches are there, so it's just a positive way to keep the sport popular amongst the kids," said Stansel, a senior. "I know Amesbury doesn't have a middle school team, so it's important that they have a flow of kids who will know what the sport is about before they get to high school. There are so many other sports that have youth leagues and camps, and with cross country and track, it's rare to find any kids who have experience with it prior to high school."
Zahoruiko, a senior at Amesbury who opted to stop running competitively to relieve stress on her knees for basketball in the winter, loves the camp's premise, while also noting that it gives her a chance to get the cardio up.
"It's a great way to get younger kids into sports and running. The counselors have a really fun time and we do our best to encourage them while they run," said Zahoruiko. "It's a smart way of getting these young kids used to the idea of running, and at the same time, it's just a lot of fun. It gets me back into running, and it's a worthwhile community service."
The rapport the counselors have with the kids and with one another is what makes Run4Fun a personable and carefree running camp the likes of which Amesbury has never seen.
"I think what makes it fun is how the coaches interact with each other and the kids. We're more of mentors and friends of the campers than just coaches," said Menezes. "We're running alongside them, swapping stories with them and trying to get to know each one as individuals.
"It's an opportunity for kids to see if they like the cross country atmosphere we're trying to recreate, and although some kids during the sessions find out that running isn't really their hobby, we play games like capture the flag, soccer and our own version of Pac Man to make sure that the kids are still enjoying themselves."