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Published December 07, 2013, 10:59 AM

Group matches runners with special needs partners

CROOKSTON, Minn. (AP) — When Tim Boyle started running less than 15 months ago, his goal simply was to get off the couch.

By: KEVIN BONHAM, Grand Forks Herald, WDAY

CROOKSTON, Minn. (AP) — When Tim Boyle started running less than 15 months ago, his goal simply was to get off the couch.

"I had quit smoking and I found that all I was doing was sitting around, getting fatter," the 41-year-old Crookston resident said last week. "All I did was trade one bad habit for another."

It worked. He got into shape and started running competitively, entering the 5K in Sunshine Foundation's Walk and Fun Run in Grand Forks, N.D., in January.

After finishing the run, he posted a photo on Facebook.

Among those commenting on his photo was someone named Michael Wasserman, a 52-year-old California resident who has Down syndrome and bilateral hip dysplasia.

Wasserman is an artist whose works were featured this fall in an online gallery sponsored by the International Down Syndrome Coalition.

Boyle praised Wasserman's artwork and commented that he would think of him when he runs.

Wasserman's mother posted his response: "You can run for me any time."

That's all it took.

Later that month, Boyle founded Who I Run 4, a nonprofit organization matching athletes with special-needs children and adults.

The group, which spreads its message through Facebook.com/IRunFor and a new WhoIRun4.com website, has grown incredibly fast. Membership recently reached 10,000, with members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and 26 countries.

Who I Run 4 already has matched more than 3,000 athletes with special needs partners.

"We've got 1,600 runners waiting for a buddy," Boyle told the Grand Forks Herald (http://bit.ly/1eU0cHR).

So far, about 80 percent of the special needs membership is made up of children. Boyle hopes it grows to include more adults.

The athletes do not raise money for their online buddies. Rather, they provide inspiration by posting pictures, reports on their progress or awards and messages. They also tag the parents, so they can monitor the exchanges.

For athletes, it provides a sense of purpose —training or competing on the child's behalf.

"They can dedicate an event or a workout to their buddy," Boyle said.

For the special needs children and their families, it's a new kind of connection.

"Parents say this gives them a sense of freedom," he said. "This allows an outsider in and promotes awareness. There's somebody outside that cocoon thinking about their child."

Boyle's initial inspiration came from a quote he read on Google: "I run because I can. When I get tired, I remember those who can't run, what they'd give to have this simple gift I take for granted, and I run harder for them. I know they would do the same for me."

He modified the quote, to serve as the motto for Who I Run 4: "God gave us the gift of mobility; others aren't as fortunate. I run for Michael. Who do you run for?"

"We've got beginners. We've got veteran Boston Marathon runners," Boyle said.

Among the members is the USA Inline Speed Skating World Team.

Another is Renee Baio, wife of actor Scott Baio, who probably is best known for his role as Chachi in the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days." Renee Baio is president of the Bailey Baio Angel Foundation, which raises money for special needs children. It is named for their daughter.

Who I Run 4 officially supports four different organizations: Special Olympics; Make-A-Wish Foundation; International Down Syndrome Coalition; and the Hands and Feet Coalition.

The group, which is run by volunteers, has conducted one fundraising event, so far, raising nearly $12,000. It plans to be a major sponsor of the Sunshine Foundation's 2014 Walk and Fun Run.

Boyle, who grew up in Crookston, was a police officer in Montgomery, Ala., from 2003 to 2006. These days, he works at Digi-Key, the electronics components distributor in Thief River Falls.

He spends at least 40 hours a week working with the charity and runs nine to 12 miles a week. He also has a small staff of volunteers.

His goal is to raise enough money to start paying a staff and, perhaps, to work it full-time himself.

He's set an initial goal of raising about $40,000 annually — perhaps $1,000 each from 40 corporate sponsors. That would allow the nonprofit charity to expand its fundraising efforts.

"If we could get to that point, it would be just great," he said. "This sure beats life on the couch."

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