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Angels in the field

Ainsley's Angels in the South Sound bring special needs awareness to JBLM races

Photo credit: Christina Butcher

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There are angels participating in almost every race at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). It's not a secret, nor do the angels hide among the crowd. They're easy to spot in their bright pink shirts, chatting happily at the starting line in a motley group of tricycle racing-chairs and athletes.

If you haven't guessed it, we're talking Ainsley's Angels here, a nonprofit organization that connects athletes with special-needs individuals at racing events to build inclusion.

"Our South Sound chapter has rolled in 28 races in 2017, including all the JBLM races," said Sarah Poppe, the ambassador of Ainsley's Angels' South Sound chapter. "Our mission is to build opportunities in a community for neighbors who have different needs, and who are thereby excluded from community activities because of them."

Poppe, a nurse practitioner in the greater JBLM area, has been participating in Ainsley's Angels since 2014. Her first race with the organization took place in Hampton Roads, Virginia, just before she moved to Washington State in support of her husband's change in duty station to JBLM. "One 5k and I was hooked," said Poppe. "I was in the hurt locker and feeling a little sorry for myself, and then Ainsley and her family rolled up. That pity party ended right quick. Her smile can brighten the darkest of moments."

The ‘Ainsley' Poppe met in 2014 was none other than Ainsley Rossiter, the namesake of the nonprofit and daughter of U.S. Marine Corps Major Kim Rossiter. Ainsley was diagnosed with Infantile Neoroaxonal Dystrophy (INAD), a rare terminal illness that leads to paralysis, when she was only 4 years old. Her family soon found that jogging and racing together provided a positive and therapeutic experience for everyone, so they decided to keep it up as long as possible.

Before Ainsley passed in 2016, her family completed over 100 races together. They continued to race in her name afterwards, and eventually expanded their activity to pair other athletes, or "Angel Athlete Runners," with "Angel Athlete Riders" like Ainsley.

Fast forward to present day and Ainsley's Angels has chapters in over 50 cities across 30 states. In Washington State alone, the organization has over 150 teammates, including those of the South Sound and West Sound chapters.

"We strive to form relationships within the community that extend beyond race day," said Poppe. "We want our adaptive athletes and families to feel and recognize their importance on and outside of race day."

Along with strong military ties at the organization's roots, Ainsley's Angels also has a robust following of servicemembers who serve as Angel Athlete Runners. At JBLM especially, the nonprofit has been warmly received by the military community since it started racing in 2015.

"Our first sponsorships, which were donations towards purchasing specialized race equipment, were from the Lewis Community Spouses' Club, The Madigan Foundation and the Ft. Lewis Thrift Shop," said Poppe. "The majority of our able-bodied participants are active-duty and (their) dependents. We have a diverse team of military and non-military alike."

The 3rd Battalion, 358th Field Artillery, at JBLM, has also participated in Ainsley's Angels over the last two years. "Our ‘South Sound Race 4 Inclusion' events included heavy volunteer participation from the 3rd Battalion, 358th Field Artillery," said Poppe.

Like previous years, Ainsley's Angels open the racing season later this month with the Fort Steilacoom Running Club's Resolution Run Series. "It's a four-race series with increasing distances (5,10,15 and 20 kilometers or miles) over four separate Saturdays, January through March," Poppe concluded. "We start every racing season this way."

Ainsley's Angels in the South Sound:

Fort Steilacoom Resolution Runs 10K/10 Mile, 9 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 27, 54 Sentinel Dr., Steilacoom, $22, adaptive athletes email for registration information, race information:   _______________________________________________________________________________________________
Photo: Lt. Col. Carrie Wentzel (second from the left, standing), the U.S. Air Force commander of the 627th Force Support Squadron at JBLM, joined Ainsley’s Angels for the morning race as an angel athlete runner along angel athlete rider Brittni Wainscott (second from the left, seated) during last month’s JBLM Jingle Bell Jog.

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