A Change of Heart – Camillus House Children’s Run Team

As I am changing the focus of TriathlonMami.com to advocacy and empowerment, I am highlighting my favorite posts from past social advocacy projects.

I don’t know where to start. Hosting the Camillus House children’s run camp was one of the most memorable things I have done so far. The camp consisted of 30 kids – 14 were from Camillus House’s Mother Seton Village, a transitional housing facility for homeless families. The other 16 children were from affluent communities around Miami. We trained two days in Homestead, near Mother Seton and the other days in Key Biscayne. What transpired has changed me as a mom, educator and athlete. This is the first of a series of posts.

You can say I was a development snob. I would look down on programs that looked more like charity than development. I lived by “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat forever.” I questioned whether I was doing something worthwhile or not, since I wasn’t teaching any skills that would help these children in the future.

I failed to understand these were children who had gone through an episode of homelessness. No matter how cute, sweet and smiley they look now, they have each been through something I cannot begin to understand. I wasn’t sure what they needed, nor what we could offer.

I first met Kevin (not his real name) at tryouts a month or so prior to camp. He was tough, aggressive, and when I was taking pictures of each kid so that I could remember names he would cover his face.


I had a box of goodies that had been donated, and the only interaction we had was “Miss can I have this? Miss can I have that?” He wanted to get something, anything, he could get.

I saw Kevin a few other times before camp. Once I touched his shoulder and he immediately withdrew and pushed himself away from me. At twelve years old, there was something about him that seemed hard. He was so guarded it caught my attention.

During the first day of camp, Kevin was still mistrustful and a bit aggressive to his peers. But four days later something had changed. On Thursday, Kevin approached me to ask for something and he touched my shoulder.

I stopped and said “Oh my goodness Kevin, you touched my shoulder. Don’t tell me that next you are going to give me a hug.”

DSC05869 (1)“Yeah, I’ll give you a hug” and there it was.  It was brief and awkward but it was a hug from the kid who pushed my hand away not even two weeks prior.

Kevin sprinted like a gazelle with this natural running form that anyone can see is beautiful. I am not a running coach, I don’t know the first thing about track and field, but I know that Kevin has talent. I looked at him and said “you have a gift, you run so beautifully. Don’t let it go to waste. That can be your ticket.”

The last day of camp, a photographer friend came to take some pictures. Kevin was posing with another child when I said I wanted to be in the picture too. He smiled, put his arm around me, and looked straight at the camera.

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I look at Kevin in this picture and see a child; a kid who was relaxed and at ease. He had been given a safe space to just be a kid. And you know something else about him? He is fast. Really fast.

In this picture I realized that Kevin needed a place where he was comfortable enough to let his guard and toughness down. We didn’t change his life, we didn’t teach him a skill that would help him  do something productive and potentially avoid the same pitfalls that landed his family at a homeless shelter.

What this kid needed was a safe place to be a kid and learn how to run faster. We provided that.

The teenage girls also taught me something similar.  Almost every picture I have of them they would cover their faces in a symbol, a “squad symbol.” They are not a gang, they described it as a tight group of friends.  By the end I could see their beautiful smiling faces with no squad sign in sight.


Before, the older girls would cover their faces.

By Friday they were posing and I could see how beautiful they are.

By Friday they were posing and I could see how beautiful they are.

The Cristina from before would’ve thought this sort of initiative was nice, but potentially a waste of money. It wasn’t useful enough, there were no concrete tools they were learning to change the economics of their lives.

The new Cristina views the world differently. Perhaps it’s because I am now a mother and I am very interested in raising children who are strong, generous and kind.

My boys have been helping me the entire journey from collecting bikes, doing inventory, and shopping at Costco for hours getting food for the camp. Fearless was in charge of washing over thirty tie dye shirts we created the first day and he did it all by himself. They are immersed in the process.


That is not a useful skill I am teaching, but I know it’s meaningful.

We also talked about how anything is possible through our phrase I’mPossible.  One smart a$$ kid said “well how about flying, I can’t fly.” And the answer was yes he could. He could invent a jet pack or fly with a wing suit. Being possible doesn’t mean it looks the way we traditionally see things. Most things aren’t possible when you work on them by yourself. But if that kid really wanted to fly, I have no doubts he could figure out how.

To cement that message, we had Hector Picard from Don’t Stop Living visit us the last day of camp. Here is a guy who lost both of his arms in an electrical accident but has taken upon himself to prove that anything is possible. He showed us how he rides a bike, swims, plays basketball, coaches his kids baseball team, types and drives. There was silence throughout the presentation – everyone was clearly in awe.

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If we teach children they can do anything, perhaps they won’t be limited by the barriers and labels society places on them.

So no, I didn’t teach them how to metaphorically fish. But I hope I showed them that if they wanted to swim like a fish, own a fishing boat, or become a world renowned chef cooking the most incredible seafood dishes … they can.

The program is far from over. Next comes some months of training individually until we all meet again in September to race. If the team beats their summer camp time, they have earned bicycles for ALL children who live at Camillus House’s Mother Seton Village. That’s over 90 children who will be benefitted by the work these kids put in and hopefully cement in their hearts that nothing is too big or too bold to try.

Next post will be on running as a bond between two opposite worlds … stay tuned.

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12 thoughts on “A Change of Heart – Camillus House Children’s Run Team

  1. I love this. Sometimes, the learning experience is more for us and them. There is value in serving our community, and this looks like a great project. As I read this I also thought that you’re not just providing a safe place, but you’re also helping them have hope that things can be better than their current situation, and that there are people they can trust. 🙂 And I love that your kids are helping out!

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