This long, cold winter has tested the resolve of many South Sound residents, but perhaps none as much as 11-year-old AJ Pogoncheff.
Pogoncheff lives with his family on Joint Base Lewis-McChord and can’t go outside when the temperature dips below 50 degrees. “And he loves being outside,” said his mom, Stacie Pogoncheff. “He’s been pretty isolated.”
AJ was born almost four months early. “There are a lot of things that come with being born early,” Stacie said. “His lungs weren’t developed. A lot of his systems weren’t developed.
“Right now the biggest thing that we deal with is his chronic lung disease and his visual impairments.”
Last summer, that didn’t keep AJ from finishing the 200-mile Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage.
Assisted by the South Sound chapter of Ainsley’s Angels, AJ rode in an adaptive racing chair while six teammates took turns pushing the chair. Each runner covered six sections of the route from Blaine to Langley. AJ rode seven of the 36 sections.
At the finish — where AJ usually runs the final 50 yards on his own — the crowd cheered and chanted his name.
We try to give him opportunities as if he could do everything like every other kid.
Stacie Pogoncheff, mother of Ainsley’s Angels athlete rider AJ Pogoncheff
“It was really exciting and impressive to see those runners out there pushing AJ,” said Stacie, who drove the team van during the two-day race. “It was well worth the weariness.”
It’s the type of experience Ainsley’s Angels looks to provide for people who can’t race without a little help.
Olympia resident Sarah Poppe started the South Sound chapter in 2015 when she was looking for ways to volunteer. She’d previously discovered Ainsley’s Angels when she lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
She ran a few races with the group and was hooked by the smiling faces in the chairs and the cheering parents at the finish line. “I haven’t found anything as fulfilling,” Poppe said.
Ainsley’s Angels started in Virginia and is named for Ainsley Rossiter, who was born in 2003 with infantile neuroaxonal dystrophy. The organization started after her parents noticed a huge smile on their daughter’s face when she tagged along for a jog in her chair. Ainsley finished 100 races before she died in February 2016.
Poppe met Ainsley while volunteering. When her husband’s military career brought them west, Poppe wanted to see similar smiles on the faces of South Sound kids.
Sarah Poppe launched the South Sound’s chapter of Ainsley’s Angels in 2015. The organization helps people with disabilities participate in running race.
The South Sound chapter has grown steadily since 2015. It currently has eight adaptive chairs, 10 athlete riders and a network of angel runners. And they’re always looking for more riders and volunteers, Poppe said.
Typically, at least two runners team up with each athlete rider during races.
The athlete riders, as they are called, range in age from 11 to the early 30s, Poppe said. They compete in as many as 25 races each year.
While the angel runners usually cover their own entry fees, the club makes sure there is no cost for the riders. Often races waive the fee. When they don’t, the club picks up the tab.
Add in the cost of the adaptive chairs ($1,000 or more) and the team is often looking to raise funds.
Their biggest fundraising event is the Race 4 Inclusion, a 4-mile event planned for April 23 in Olympia.
Poppe is impressed with how the community supports Ainsley’s Angels.
But not all the moments have been happy. Before the Olympia Valentine’s Day 5K on Feb. 11, Poppe noticed the lock was no longer on the team trailer.
Somebody broke in and stole about $500 worth of equipment and a donation check. Luckily, Poppe said, the thieves did not steal the adaptive chairs. They did, however, take a new speaker system Poppe planned to use at the April 23 race.
The group remains undeterred.
Poppe hopes the April race will draw more volunteers and riders to Ainsley’s Angels.
The run marks AJ’s one-year anniversary racing with Ainsley’s Angels.
AJ is already competing in Special Olympics swimming, golf, bowling and basketball — mostly indoor sports — but Stacie says it’s nice to have another smile-inducing outdoor activity.
“We try to give him opportunities as if he could do everything like every other kid,” Stacie said. “It’s just nice that we’ve found ways that will work with his needs.
“… We love Ainsley’s Angels and my son absolutely loves being part of the team.”
RACE 4 INCLUSION
Where: Hand On Children’s Museum, 414 Jefferson St. NE, Olympia.
When: 9 a.m. April 23.
Distance: 4 miles.
Entry fee: $30, $25 for Angel Runners (those pushing adaptive chairs) and free for athlete riders (those in chairs).
Swag: Participants get a finisher medal and a shirt.