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Community comes together for running club

MIDDLEBURY — Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon this spring, Dan Briggs had track practice. For the 18-year-old from Addison this was a new experience.
Briggs was born with spina bifida, a congenital spinal disorder that requires him to wear leg braces and keeps him from running or walking long distances.
But when he decided he wanted to join his school’s running club, program instructors, community members and his teammates came together in an extraordinary way to make his dream a reality.
Briggs is a student at the Diversified Occupations Program, an alternative high school special education program in Middlebury. Last spring, the program introduced Diversified Occupations on the Run, or DOOR, a running club in which seven of the program’s students trained for and ran in the Crowley Road Race in Rutland for the first time. The activity was so well received that this year’s DOOR team doubled to 14 students and six coaches, all of whom will run a 5K at Charlotte Central School this Sunday.
“What a thrill for these kids, most of whom had never been on a team nor had ever tried running,” said Iain Hoefle, a special educator with the D.O. and one of the team’s coaches.
For Briggs to take part, a device known as an adult jogger was needed. Unfortunately, commercial push chairs of this type carry a price tag of $800-$1,200, more than the program could afford. So Sally Thodal, a teaching assistant at the program, reached out to her husband, Dick, an accomplished welder. With materials donated by Champlain Valley Construction, Skihaus and The Bike Center of Middlebury, Dick Thodal fabricated a custom jogger for Briggs.
Briggs’ teammates take turns pushing him in the jogger on the 3.1-mile circuit they run twice a week from the D.O. program’s classrooms next to Middlebury Union High School. Then, about 150 yards from the end of each run, Briggs gets out and pushes the jogger over the finish line himself while the team cheers him on.
“He attends all the practices, is enthusiastic in encouraging all other runners to keep going and has even voted himself captain for this season,” Hoefle said. “Dan gives back to his team by providing humor, encouragement and a running commentary.”
Inspired by Briggs’ success, other students have found places for themselves on the DOOR team. One girl has joined the team as a photographer, and there is also a student manager who rides alongside the team on a bike.
Hoefle stressed the importance of inclusivity to the team. One of the vital roles filled by a program like Diversified Occupations is that of helping its participants find unique ways to contribute to the team effort. The students say DOOR does just that.
“Working as a team (encourages me to meet people) I might not have talked to before,” student Philip Jerome said.
“I like that it’s a challenge,” said Clifford Bell, noting that pushing Briggs’ jogger is a point of pride, cementing the sense of teamwork and cooperation.
Briggs’ mother, Kathy, stressed the importance of camaraderie among the team members.
“They’re like a family,” she said of the DOOR team. “He comes home and talks about each one of them.”
Participation in the program has done wonders for Briggs, who has also been diagnosed with autistic tendencies, his mother said.
“This is incredible. He never used to ask to go anywhere,” she said., but now her son looks forward to attending fundraisers with the team.
Briggs will graduate soon, and Kathy Briggs spoke with pride of his independence and maturity at graduation practice, which she attributes to his experience with DOOR.
The coaches allow students to contribute to the team however they are able. This approach enables students to define their own role in accomplishing something that is important to them, and teaches them to be proactive and proud of their contributions. The continued success of the program, which inspires the whole Diversified Occupations staff and student body, will be on display this Sunday as Briggs pushes his jogger over the finish line in Charlotte, and next spring as the team comes together again.

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