Three years ago, when Brian McWilliams was a freshman at Pine-Richland High School, like most high school students, he had a lot on his plate.
But when he found out his former running coach's son had become seriously ill, the teen felt compelled to help the family.
"He was my first running coach and one of my favorite teachers.
"He had done so much for me as a coach, I felt like I wanted to do something for him," said Mr. McWilliams about Eric Brown, an eighth-grade teacher at Pine-Richland Middle School.
That "something" turned out to be a fundraising event, a nonprofit organization Mr. McWilliams created to assist the Brown family and other families whose children face spinal cord illness or injury.
The project started in fall 2009 when Mr. Brown's 4-year-old son, Alex, was diagnosed with a blood mass on his spinal column.
Alex had surgery and spent months in the hospital recovering from the condition, surgery and treatment.
"I had heard about small fundraisers and got the idea that since Mr. Brown was my first running coach, I would organize a 5K race," Mr. McWilliams said.
He drew on support from his family and friends and got the word out about the event.
He had brochures and fliers printed and donated, the event T-shirts were donated, and fellow National Honor Society students pitched it. In April 2010, nearly 800 runners showed up at North Park for his inaugural event that raised more than $30,000.
"It was so much more than I ever expected. I was just amazed," he said.
Since Mr. McWilliams wanted to keep the fundraising initiative going, he formed a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, formally naming his nonprofit the Team Alex Fund.
He has hosted the race every spring since.
The Team Alex Fund grew from helping the Brown family to serving other families by helping them purchase mobility equipment and specialized treatment devices. Mr. McWilliams is also expanding his fundraising efforts.
"I'm trying to branch out and want to host a golf outing in the early spring," he said. He also partnered with Complete Chiropractic Health in Cranberry.
Through Dec. 1, Complete Chiropractic is offering new patients a complete Health History Consultation for $20, and the entire fee will be donated to the Team Alex Fund.
While most college freshmen may be overwhelmed with planning fundraising events to be held hundreds of miles away, Mr. McWilliams "thrives" on being busy. He completed high school in three years and is enrolled in a program in which he will complete his bachelor's degree and master's degree in business administration in only five years.
"I'm really good with time management," he said, laughing.
"Plus, I have a really great board of directors and my parents help out," he said.
Mr. McWilliams in also involved in a nonprofit protege program at the University of Alabama.
This program matches students with directors of nonprofits who mentor the program participants, he said.
"We are learning about marketing, grant writing and other issues that will assist us with our own projects," he said.
"It is a great opportunity."
Mr. McWilliams has scheduled the Fourth Annual Team Alex 5K/5 Mile Run/Walk for May 18 with a spaghetti dinner scheduled May 17, which will be hosted by Pine-Richland High School National Honor Society.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.