AP NEWS

Leominster Teacher Running Boston Marathon to Honor Memory of Friend

April 14, 2019

LEOMINSTER -- “The one thing everyone says about Chelsea is that she had a beautiful smile.”

Those were the words of Kacey Morin when asked to describe her friend, Chelsea Smith, who died in 2017, at age 26, after a lifelong battle with health ailments stemming from childhood cancer.

Though she’s been gone for two years, Smith’s joyous spirit and beaming personality still frequently visit Morin’s thoughts. Now even more so, as Morin, 27, makes final preparations to run her first Boston Marathon on Monday in honor of her friend.

“I’ve been friends with the Smith family for years,” Morin said. “My family has been close to them. And Deane Smith, Chelsea’s dad, actually offered the bib to me this year. It’s been a dream of mine to run the marathon, and I was so grateful that he offered me this opportunity. Since I was getting it from them, I wanted them to know that I had Chelsea in mind.”

Morin, a first-grade teacher at Frances Drake Elementary School in Leominster, graduated from St. Bernard’s in 2009. She and Smith had been friends since childhood. Their older brothers, Quinn Smith and Brian Morin, were part of the same circle of friends, so spending time together just came naturally.

Smith attended Fitchburg schools throughout her childhood, however she was often “in and out of school,” Morin said, due to her illness.

At age 2, Smith was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a type of cancer seen most often in children younger than 3, which causes tumors to grow in the liver. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery followed, and the treatment left Smith with ongoing, serious health issues.

Where others in her place might have felt anger or resentment, Smith remained a source of joy for everyone around her.

“I think it was just her positive energy,” Morin said, explaining why so many people were drawn to Smith’s personality. “She was in and out of the hospital quite a bit throughout her life, starting when she was very young. Other than seeing her not doing well, you wouldn’t know that from the energy that was radiating off of her.”

Through the marathon, Morin has collected donations from friends and the community to support the work of Dr. Allison O’Neill, who specializes in researching hepatoblastoma, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Morin is no stranger to racing. She’s already run two marathons, and in 2017 she won the inaugural Keep Smiling Beautiful 5K Walk and Run, held to celebrate Smith’s life.

Even so, Morin knows her first Boston Marathon is a different beast.

“Third marathon, first Boston,” Morin said. “The jitters are jittery right now. I’m nervous, but excited.”

Morin also received some unexpected motivation on Friday. Staff and students at Frances Drake surprised her with a celebratory send-off, hanging a banner that bore dozens of signatures and notes of encouragement, as well as Smith’s name.

The support was overwhelming, Morin said. When sharing a photo from the event, she referred to those pictured as, “My Frances Drake family.”

Morin began taking part in road races toward the end of her time in college, but her interest in the sport began even earlier. Her mother, Lori, has twice run the Boston Marathon.

Lori Morin was near the finish line on April 15, 2013, when a pair of homemade explosives were set off, killing three and injuring hundreds. Mother and daughter have been back to the marathon since then, but nowhere near the site of the explosions. The memories have been too painful.

“My mom was at the marathon the year of the bombing, and she was at the finish line,” Morin said. “This year is her first time going back to the finish line, so I’m hoping to give her a better memory.”

Through family, students and the community, Morin has plenty of motivation to run her best race on Monday. Most of all, she knows the memory of Smith will be with her every step of the way.

“Training for this race, I just totally feel like she’s going to be with me on race day,” Morin said. “Sometimes if I get injured or I think, ‘Ugh,’ I think of Chelsea and I think, ‘I’m running for her.’ She’s going to be running with me, I know that.”

Follow Ross Edwards on Twitter @rossredwards.