Every Sunday morning as he has done for the past three years, Benji Chu drives from his home in Richmond to the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings to lead Run for Change, a program he started for low-income residents of the Downtown Eastside.
It isn’t just his early weekend hours Chu sacrifices to keep the group operating; each week there are the small expenses for snacks, which he considers vital for instilling a sense of community, and more costly ventures such as the annual fun run they sponsor each summer.
A worn blue baseball cap covers the youthful 50-year-old’s shaved head. His grin is almost constant, but his expression turns serious when he talks about the costs he pays every week in an effort to outfit several dozen middle-distance runners.
Chu estimates he donates $1,000 to keep the program—and participants—running each year.
The married father of one is no stranger to going out of his way to promote the health and societal benefits of running. In 2008, the full-time chef at MDA Corporation, a technology company based in Richmond, ran 12 marathons along the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Sacramento.
The following year, he ran a marathon in Morocco, raising $10,000 to build a school. On returning to B.C., he had an epiphany that his help was needed locally.
In November, Tetley Tea singled out Run for Change and made a donation as part of its online Renewal campaign to promote fitness. The tea company donated $1,500 toward running gear, including shoes and jackets.
Despite the Tetley promotion, which can be seen on YouTube, no other sponsors have stepped forward and the costs continue to mount for Chu.
He believes the investments are worth it.
“There’s a lot of potential here for people who need help,” Chu says. “The more I get to know them, I find that we have so much to learn from each other. I have a good relationship with people in the Downtown East Side.”
He hints at having friends who have ended up on these streets.
Forty-five people are registered with Run for Change and roughly 25 show up each weekend. Just before 10 a.m. one Sunday morning in February, they start to file through the front doors of the Carnegie Centre. The members range from low-income residents, recovery centre patients, adults with mental disabilities and families. They include three generations of the Raven family: daughter, mother, grandmother.
Chu emphasizes a person of any fitness level can join Run for Change. They walk and run a usual route toward the Olympic Village, a familiar course led by Chu along with Dan and Sue Bouchard (volunteer run leaders who drive in from White Rock) and Sandy MacKeigan, the programmer at Oppenheimer Park’s new field house.
Since Kate Wikeland joined Run for Change in the fall, her goal is to accomplish the “Great Walk” from Gold River to Tahsis in what is known as “burning boot country” on Vancouver Island, which covers more than 60 kilometres of logging roads and is considered one of the most difficult walks in North America.
“[The running group] is not just getting my endurance up, though,” says the enthusiastic 40-something woman with dark blond hair. “It’s the mental, emotional and spiritual boost of positivity.”
The last word is one she vigorously repeats.
Chu started the annual Run for Change 5K Fun Run in 2010, which happens every August. The event is free and attracted 50 runners last year.
Chu says the greatest achievement of crossing the finish line is a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. While Run for Change accepts donations and is grateful to Tetley, Chu is adamant he and the runners don’t become a corporate billboard. He continues to fund Run for Change.
“I find that they need help, and the more I help them the more they help me, too,” he says. “We help each other to be stronger. Sometimes when I’m feeling weak I help them and I feel we’re both stronger. We help each other to build the strong human spirit, to be in a better place. When I’m down, I see they’re happy and I’m happy.”
Chu can be reached at email@example.com or go to runforchange.ca for more information.