Race for Grace marks seventh year

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Empowered by tragedy to help other families affected by pediatric brain cancer, the Reflections of Grace Foundation is holding its seventh annual Race for Grace this weekend to support research and families dealing with pediatric brain cancer.

Race day registration for the timed 5K race begins at 7 a.m. Saturday at Norwin High School stadium in North Huntingdon.

The race, which debuted in December 2007, is the main source of fundraising for the foundation, named for Grace Ekis, who died at age 5 on Valentine’s Day in 2008 of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a rare form of pediatric brain cancer. That same year, the Ekis family channeled their grief into founding the nonprofit to provide financial, emotional and education support for others.

“We planned the first race in six weeks because we knew that time was not on our side, and we wanted to have Grace there to enjoy the day,” said race director Ashley Metz Leax.

“This was our charge, after something so very horrible happened to us,” said Tamara Ekis, Grace’s mother and co-founder of the foundation. Her husband, Brian Ekis, sits on the foundation's board of directors.

Reflections of Grace has given $210,000 directly to 135 families in 29 states since its inception, through networking with hospital social workers and a collaborative of other organizations supporting those affected with the rare cancer.

“We paid the mortgage for one family who was going to lose their home and secured permanent housing for another family in an abusive situation so that their child could spend his last few months in a safe place,” said Mrs. Ekis.

The group also helped a family by paying for car repairs when the family’s only means to get to treatments succumbed to a Minnesota snowstorm.

It has donated $165,000 toward a research initiative through the DIPG collaborative, $85,000 of which was pledged in 2013.

“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds because of the support we’ve had in the region,” said Mrs. Leax.

Last year’s Race for Grace raised $120,000 and attracted 2,300 participants from the Pittsburgh region and beyond, said Mrs. Ekis, who teaches kindergarten at Francis McClure Primary School in McKeesport Area School District.

“We’ve made it a family event,” she said, adding that her sons, Colin, 18, and Garrett, 15, actively recruit Norwin High School student leaders to form teams.

The Ekises also have a daughter, Claire, 4..

This is the first year the race will have a presenting sponsor, C. Harper Auto Group. WTAE-TV News anchor Mike Clark will serve as master of ceremonies and 96.1 KISS "Morning Freak Show" celebrities, Mike and Big Bob, will speak at the opening ceremony and to present awards.

Local dance schools — Ken and Jeans’ Dance Studio in North Versailles, where Grace Ekis attended classes, and The Elite School of Dance by Elena in Irwin — will make appearances. Slippery Rock University’s dance company will also perform. Local band, Majority Rules, will play at the 9 a.m. start as runners take their marks.

“We have added features for participants and others attending,” Mrs. Leax said.

Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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