First members run half marathon to help Haitian orphans

By Jessica Brodie

MYRTLE BEACH—Four people have paired their love for running with a way to help a church raise $8,000 to feed Haitian orphans.

First United Methodist Church members Alex Clayton and Melody Gildner, First associate pastor the Rev. Jonathan Harris and their friend Mike Penter ran the Myrtle Beach Half Marathon Oct. 21 to raise the needed funds; more funds continue to roll in post-race.

As of the day of the race, they had raised $3,300 of the $8,000 total.

“Any incentive is good when running for two hours, but to know while doing it we’re representing a cause like this is pretty cool,” Penter said.

Running for kids

It all started about a year ago, when a few First members started an F3 (Fitness, Fellowship and Faith) workout group. As several in the group improved their run times significantly, they began exploring ideas about the group participating in a longer run.

One day, the annual Myrtle Beach Half Marathon popped into Harris’s mind. The Myrtle Beach Half Marathon is an event that has long interfered with the way First normally does church, as road closures for the marathon always make it more difficult for people to get to church on time, if at all.

“I started wondering, ‘How could we take an event that has typically been seen as an obstacle to church and view it instead as an opportunity to more fully be the church?’” Harris said.

Then, God stepped in. Alexandre Jean Renel, a Haitian who studied in Port-au Prince, began a dialogue with First about the needs of an orphanage Renel started in Jeremie, Haiti, the Christian Haitian Orphan Development Professional Jeremie. The orphanage began with just a few children Renel encountered in the rain late one evening. The number grew to 20, then 35. Now, since Hurricane Matthew passed through in 2016, there are 50 children in the orphanage. It also helps children with disabilities, vulnerable families and youth, providing medical facilities, basic education, farming support, clothing, food aid and safe and healthy drinking water.

An idea struck: What if First could raise funds to help the orphanage through the half marathon?

The church responded, as did the community at-large.

‘I can do for some’

Renel started the orphanage in June 2001. Initially, he’d been working in music ministry in Jeremie helping children and others learn to play instruments so their skills could bless local church worship services each Sunday. But he began to notice the great number of children sitting in the streets, begging for money for food from people passing by in their cars. He said his heart always broke for them.

“When I see children in miseries or begging in the street, as a Haitian my heart felt trouble,” Renel said. “I said (to) myself, ‘I cannot help all people, but I can do for some.’”

Renel said he heard “Jesus talk in my heart,” and he decided to start the orphanage.

“In the future we would like (to house) 50 more children at a new building that will be if God (is) willing,” Renel said.

His passion to help children inspired First members, who immediately decided they wanted to help.

A way to help

Gildner was the first person to step up and register for the race, making their goal official. Her commitment inspired Harris and Clayton, who registered and began to train.

Harris said Clayton’s commitment means a lot to him especially, “Because he readily admits that running isn't his thing. But he's spent the last few months getting up really early and running dozens of miles to help somebody else.”

Penter, who is not a First member but is connected to the church through the F3 group, signed on to run as soon as he heard about the plan to help the orphans.

Penter told the Advocate that teaming fitness with helping kids in need “is a fantastic idea.”

“It’s amazing that we can feed this entire orphanage for a year on $8,000,” Penter said.

To learn more about helping the orphanage through the church, write First UMC, P.O. Box 1367, Myrtle Beach, SC 29578, or contact Harris at [email protected].

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