A Race for Bill
To help raise money for a fitness center named in honor of a slain police officer, an Illinois school district creates its own Amazing Race.
On Sept. 20, 2004, Illinois statehouse security officer Bill Wozniak was slain by a single gunshot while on duty. Wozniak lived in Petersburg, Ill., a town of 2,400 about 25 miles northwest of Springfield, and his two teenage children attended PORTA High School (a consolidated school district of five towns, the first letter of each town creating the name of the district). The Wozniak family was active in the athletics program; Wozniak's son lettered in football and wrestling, his daughter was a cheerleader, and he and his wife were booster club parents.
To honor both Wozniak's memory and his passion for sports, his family donated $10,000 in Bill's name toward the construction of a new fitness center for the high school, a project proposed three years prior to Wozniak's death. "When Mr. Wozniak passed away, the family knew that the fitness center was something that he had really wanted to see happen," says PORTA High School Principal Darren Hartry. "They provided the seed money."
When completed, the Wozniak Fitness Center will be open to students and student-athletes and follow the "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" strength-training program. Physical education classes will be held in the facility, teaching the importance of maintaining healthy, active lifestyles after graduation.
According to Hartry, who also serves as the fundraising chair of the fitness center committee, the facility will break ground in summer 2007 or when funds raised reach $100,000. To raise the necessary funds, the committee has taken the unique approach of designing fundraisers based on fitness-related reality shows, modifying them to appeal to as many community members and business donors as possible. Collectively, these fundraisers have raised more than $25,000 in the two years following Wozniak's death.
The most recent reality-TV fundraiser was a twist on CBS's Amazing Race. The entire event lasted two-and-a-half hours and consisted of nine three-member teams in several age categories. They biked 15 miles and participated in 12 "pitstops," such as a team log drag or an individual golf-putt challenge, before getting a clue as to where their next challenge took place. The teams in their respective categories crossing the finish line in the shortest amount of time were declared the winners. The event profited more than $3,300. Hartry believes the committee's ability to tap into its volunteer base, take advantage of the community's affinity for outdoor recreation, Petersburg's geography, and the high school's connections to local vendors are some of the reasons behind the PORTA's Amazing Race success.
Hartry is a fan of reality TV and devised the high school's Amazing Race in spring 2006 while in the midst of running another fundraiser based on the reality-TV shows The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Fit Club. He wanted a fundraiser that would emphasize the fitness center's philosophy as well as display teamwork, and the setup of the original Amazing Race fits this concept, he says. On the show, 11 two-member teams race each other in stages looking for and deciphering clues around the world. At the end of each stage, the team to come in last is eliminated. Team members must use their physical and mental skills during each stage, enduring challenges, such as rock climbing or figuring out how to travel without readily available transportation or money.
"Originally, I started out with the teams not knowing what the next task would bekind of like the show," explains Hartry. "The teams would have to find their clues and perform their tasks to get their next clue. But I just didn't know how to market that to attract all the fitness people we wanted to come. We felt they would want to know some of the activities beforehand, so I took away the unknown."
The best way to do this was to lay out the course in the bucolic community of Petersburg itself and create challenges no more difficult than one might perform during high school gym class. Hartry felt that the ease and types of activities would appeal to the community and keeping the event local would attract area businesses to donate prizes and sponsor challenges. Furthermore, it also kept expenses as low as possible, since little to no fees were necessary to hold the event.
"We have a lot of families who runit's not just the kids. Fitness is just a part of life here in Petersburg," Hartry explains. "And we're very fortunate to have the facilities available to us to host something like this. Our school is excellent, with lots of room here on campus, including a pool, yet we're close enough and rural enough that we can actually do 15 miles of biking and stay away from highways."
Unlike the show, there was no waiting for every team to finish the task before moving onto the next stage and no teams were eliminated. When one challenge was complete, the three-member team sped to the next one. The locations of the challenges were: Seven-and-a-half miles southeast of PORTA High School is the 700-acre New Salem State Park and the Menard Archers archery range which hosted the team log drag and archery events. The team canoe competition was held at Lake Petersburg (two miles from New Salem), with the golf-putt and mid-iron contests taking place on the lake's western shore at Shambolee Golf Course. The high school hosted the football tire throw and field-goal kicking contest, softball hitting, 1.5-mile team relay on the refurbished track, swimming race, and basketball free throw contest.
SPONSORING THE COURSE
The race was organized similarly to a golf tournament. Instead of having a sponsor for each hole, PORTA had sponsors for each pitstop challenge at $100 each. Hartry also sought four $50 lunch sponsorships from local stores and factories.
He took a very simple approach to sponsor solicitation: "To be honest, most of the people I've hit up are vendors to the school," Hartry says. "Pretty much anyone who's walked though our doors, I've put a squeeze on them. We're a Pepsi school, so I called Pepsi and explained what we were doing. I told them that I needed at least 150 water bottles and Gatorade to have on hand for the participants. Then I talked to the Josten rep who does our rings and diplomas, and the company signed up to be a challenge sponsor."
One business Hartry didn't put the squeeze on was Springfield Memorial Hospital. The school district's part-time athletic trainer is a staff member of the hospital and asked the hospital to be a sponsor. The hospital agreed, donating $1,000 worth of Sports Gear clothing in return for being the sole sponsor of the race's T-shirts. The committee happily obliged.
In all, sponsorships provided $900 worth of prizes. "We gave nice pullovers that read, 'Amazing Race Champions' to each of the first-place teams," says Hartry. "Second-place teams received a gold shirt that also read 'Amazing Race' and third-place got a ball cap with 'Amazing Race' on it, too.
"The champions also received a personalized brick to be placed in either our Walk of Fame, which is a walkway planned for the fitness center, or on the facade of the building," he continues. "The bricks read 'Champions, Amazing Race, 2006' with each team member's name. The second- and third-place winners received a winter sports pass to PORTA home games and activities."
VOLUMES OF VOLUNTEERS
PORTA's Amazing Race was supposed to take place in early June, but was postponed until Columbus Day weekend so the high school track could be resurfaced in time for the 2006-07 school year. As it turns out, the delay was fortuitous. The extra three months allowed more time for volunteers to sign up.
One of those volunteers was Steve O'Connor, a construction site manager at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, who has children in the PORTA school district. O'Connor competes in Iron Man triathlons and was training for that event when he read an article in the local paper about the Amazing Race. O'Connor called not only to learn about the fundraiser but also to volunteer his services, assisting with tracking the bike race's mileage and course conditions. He even asked the committee if he could contact Fit Cluba corporate sponsor of the triathlons O'Connor competes infor donations. "In the past, Fit Club would sometimes provide half-towels with its advertising on them for the Iron Man swimming functions," Hartry explains. "Whoever does the swimming events for our race would need a towel to dry off, so Steve worked on that."
Additionally, PORTA faculty and staff and their spouses put in countless hours preparing for the event, guiding the committee on the specific needs of each challenge. "Many of them stepped up saying, 'Hey I can do this or that, sign me up,'" Hartry says. "And that's how we got our bike guy. One of our staffers' wives is a huge biker, doing those crazy cross-country races. He runs the SAG (Support And Gear) vehicle for a lot of his wife's bike tours and he volunteered to run ours. This gentleman is also a techie-type of person, so he worked on the spreadsheet that tabulated the final scores."
Student-athletes also contributed their time and energy as Hartry put one sport team in charge of each pitstop and made each head coach and players responsible for equipment safety checks and to see that all equipment was used properly during the race. Athletic Director Mark Bolton managed the food services and worked with a volunteer from the wrestling program who grilled all the meat consumed during the event.
Throughout the process, Hartry received many offers of assistance and ideas. "One of our substitute teachers is a member of the Menard Archers, the area's archery club," he says. "We were talking about the race, and the substitute teacher said, 'the Menard Archers would love to volunteer for something like that.' So, basically, he volunteered his club to host the archery portion of the race."
The high school's practical arts department helped publicize the race, designing 19" x 13" glossy posters. "Our industrial tech teacher has a strong background in graphic design, so he created them," says Hartry. "We made sure we got posters to most of the bike shops and running clubs in Springfield. Then we created our own tri-fold brochures and distributed them all over the community."
The publicity worked. Buzz of PORTA's Amazing Race drew media attention, and the fundraising efforts were featured in the capital-region paper, the State Journal-Register. In addition to covering the story, the paper ended up sponsoring one of the challenges.
Volunteer help also came from the challenges' host sites. For instance, when the committee approached the association that maintains Lake Petersburg's marina for use of its waterway, the words barely left Hartry's mouth before the association answered, "yes." "They were very excited to do the canoeing on the lake," Hartry says. "Right away they offered their support boat and lake patrol personnel in case there were any accidents."
PORTA's Amazing Race started at 8 a.m. at the high school with teams leaving at one-minute intervals. Teams were told in advance the bike routes and pitstop challenges, with the first challenge being the golf putting contest at Shambolee. From there, contestants biked to the lake for the canoe competition and then trekked to New Salem for the log drag.
Next, the teams pedaled to the archery range for that portion of the race and then rode back to Shambolee for the golf mid-iron challenge. The contestants then raced to the high school and competed individually in the basketball free-throw shooting contest, the softball-hitting competition, field-goal kicking, and the shot-put throw. Finally, the race ended with the team 1.5-mile running relay. The winning team came in at one hour, four minutes, and the last team to cross the finish line came in just under two-and-a-half hours.
Hartry is psyched for PORTA's Amazing Race II next fall and is using the feedback from this year's participants to add more flair to the event, such as creating distinct amateur- and professional-level categories, or even a family division. "My nine-year-old daughter wants a kids' version of the race," he says. "I couldn't imagine how much the kids and their parents really got into it until I was there on race dayI think she's on to something."
Other advicewhich the committee is currently working onis visiting community Web sites that appeal to outdoor enthusiasts who favor this type of competition. The top-finishing teams gave Hartry the names of the publicity contacts at the larger regional bike associations they belong to and offered to talk to athletes they train with to appear in next fall's race.
The most popular feedback, though, dealt with food. "Veggie burgers, bananas, and oranges, were numbers one, two, and three on the feedback forms," says Hartry. "The athletes wanted more variety in the pre-event snacks we provided."
The final feedback that convinced the committee to plan a second Amazing Race was the positive remarks about how near-perfect the race's layout and challenges were designed. "There were three things that people wanted differently for this," Hartry says. "Practice attempts for the individual competitions, larger tarps on the golf greens to make the holes easier to see for the mid-iron challenge, and a three-fourths mile canoe raceone mile was a little too much. All those adjustments are very easy to make."
After reviewing his notes on this year's event, Hartry is overwhelmed by all the attention the fundraiser has brought to the fitness center and sums up his confidence on the success of next year's race. "Look, when the biggest complaint is that there should be more veggie burgers, you know you ran a pretty darn good fundraiser."
For more details on PORTA High School's Amazing Race or to learn more about the Wozniak Fitness Center, visit www.porta202.org.
PORTA EXTRA: WEIGHTROOM LUCK
One piece of advice Darren Hartry, Principal of PORTA High School (Ill.) and chairperson of the high school's Fitness Center's fundraising committee, offers booster clubs is to never underestimate the power of print. When an article about the fitness committee's "Get Fit for the Fitness Center" contest ran in the State Journal-Register earlier this spring, the committee got a phone call it'll never forget.
"There was a guy who bought one of those storage rental units at a liquidation sale, including all of its contents," recalls Hartry. "When he went through it, it was full of fitness equipment from a fitness center in St. Louis that went bankrupt. He had tried to sell some of the pieces to a local high school, but things fell through. So, when he saw one of the newspaper articles, he called one of our coaches and said, 'Hey guys, this is costing me money because I can't rent one of the units with all this stuff in it. Why don't you have someone come down and take a look? For $6,500 you can have it all.'"
Hartry and several committee members visited the storage facility with some hesitationbut that didn't last long. The storage room was crammed full of strength-training equipment, including three complete sets of leg presses, power racks, and squat machines. The pieces were in mint condition, less than two years old, and they even featured PORTA's school colors of blue and white. Hartry estimates the equipment is worth $35,000 to $45,000. He says the committee will keep two sets of the equipment and will most likely sell the remaining pieces, adding that money to the fitness center's fundraising account.
"There are some area schools interested in the larger pieces," Hartry says, "but our job at this point is to start re-assembling everythingthe equipment looks like a giant un-solved jigsaw puzzle. We may have to have a weekend party. That can be our next fundraiser: Get a prize for putting together the equipment the fastest."