Coleman’s Run benefits Liberty Autism Speaks chapter

Runners of all ages gathered at the starting line for the fourth annual Coleman’s Run 5K race Saturday April 11 at 9 a.m. at the Aide Station located at 1035 Avalon Drive in Forest, Virginia, in order to help raise awareness for autism.

Clad in white shirts featuring Captain America’s shield with a puzzle piece on the front and a name of a family member, friend or relative that has autism written on the back, approximately 86 registered runners took part in the event. The proceeds from the race went to Autism Speaks U Liberty University to help fund autism research.

The Autism Speaks U is specially engineered to inform colleges and their surrounding community through teaching, fundraising and standing up for those affected by autism according to Autism Speaks U Liberty University’s Facebook page.

Autism awareness is a passion of Dr. Clark Zealand, associate professor of sport management at Liberty and founder of Eco-X Sports, whose son Coleman was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old. The run is named after Zealand’s son and was created in order to provide families with hope.

The race opened with a prayer and encouragment from Liberty Flames Football Director of Spiritual Development Dr. Ed Gomes. Gomes urged families who are going through difficult times to cling to God and learn from their struggles.

“My encouragement to you is to trust God through the difficulty,” Gomes said. “Talk to someone who’s been through something like you’re going through. Because sometimes when you go through life experiences, those experiences have a way of teaching you things about life that you would never have known. And then God can take what you’ve been through and he can use what you’re experiencing to help somebody else walk through it.”

Part of the Coleman’s Run initiative is to provide people with the knowledge that there are plenty of treatment options available for people with autism, according to Zealand.

“There are things that we can do to help these kids and these individuals,” Zealand said. “Our story was somewhat of a dead-end diagnosis that (our) son was autistic … and that was about it. So after that, it was like, ‘What do we do?’ So we want other people who find themselves in a similar situation as us to get more of a head start on different approaches to treatment, whatever it is.”

According to Zealand, Coleman’s Run has grown in a variety of ways since it was created. This year, Zealand said there were more community members that were involved with the race, as well as more local businesses that got on board as sponsors.

One of those sponsors was Centra Autism & Development Service. According to Paula Dubay, marketing director for Centra Mental Health, Centra has opened a new diagnostic center and is offering new autism programs.

Through the help of sponsors, Zealand was able to accomplish some of the planning by himself, but Zealand wanted students to have the chance to participate in the planning process of the project. Zealand turned his dream into a project for his administration organization sports and recreation class, who received credit for managing the project. Liberty junior and Legal and Finance Manager for the race Brendan Smith said organizing the race and completing the tasks Zealand has prepared for each student make up a big portion of the grade for Zealand’s class.

“There are four or five groups,” Smith said. “There’s legal and finance, marketing, hospitality, course setup and volunteers. So throughout the semester, we’ve been coordinating with each other and then talking to outside vendors to make sure everything for the race is together (and) using social media to get people to sign up for the race.”

Smith said it is rewarding to see everything come together after a semester of working on this assignment.

According to Zealand, having his class execute the planning of the event helped the students put into practice what they have learned in class.

“I learned a little bit about doing a budget for a nonprofit, and I have been to other 5Ks, but I never really had an understanding for how it all worked and what happened behind the scenes,” Smith said. “And because of helping with Coleman’s Run, I’ve learned that.”

Coleman’s Run differs from other 5K races in that there is little to no emphasis placed on competition. Instead, the focus is on having a good time, getting fresh air and exercise and fighting for a good cause, Zealand said.

For Nate Kearney, the course was not difficult to tackle. After having run approximately 100 races prior to the Coleman’s Run, Aerney had the experience needed to finish the course in record time and come in second place. Aerney ran for his cousin who has autism.

Invited by her friends to join the Coleman’s Run, Kara James said she found the course a bit difficult since she had not run in a long time. However, she pushed through to finish for a relative who has autism.

“I have a relative who is diagnosed with Asberger syndrome, but he’s recently been going downhill and has now been diagnosed with a mild case of autism,” James said.

Liberty junior Hannah Deel, who also works for Liberty’s chapter of Autism Speaks, said Autism Speaks is not limited to simply educating people about autism.

“For us, it is about spreading awareness about autism and educating our student body and the community, but here at Liberty we take it a step further and we really want to help these families,” Deel said. “It’s not just about what autism is, it’s about helping these families that are in need, doing everything we can to support them and spreading the love of Christ to them is our number one priority.”

For more information about Coleman’s Run, visit

BUNNER is a feature reporter.

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