Fort Smith pastor races for special needs inclusion
FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Once he relocated to Fort Smith nearly a year ago to pastor at a local church, Jarrett Banks immediately made sure he ordered a chair.
It was no ordinary chair, however. The chair Banks ordered represented his other current calling.
Banks, the senior minister at First Christian Church in Fort Smith, is also the western Arkansas ambassador for Ainsley’s Angels of America, a nonprofit organization aimed at building awareness about the special needs community across the United States through inclusion in all aspects of life.
The organization’s biggest venture is allowing special needs people of all ages the ability to participate in running events across the country, ranging from 5K races to half marathons to even full marathons. Those participants are then pushed in special chairs by runners.
Banks, a North Carolina native, had been the Ainsley’s Angels ambassador in northern Oklahoma when he served at a church in Enid prior to arriving in Fort Smith. He started his new job nearly a year ago on Aug. 1.
But again, Banks’ first order of business was getting a chair. It was finally delivered nine days later, on Aug. 10 of last year.
“We are located in 30 states, but we were not located in the state of Arkansas prior to me moving here, so I was really excited when the church called me to be their pastor because I knew there was not an Ainsley’s Angels in the entire state and we could get it started in Arkansas,” Banks said. “As soon as I moved here, I ordered one chair and it was delivered on Aug. 10.
“I took the chair downtown as soon as I received it, and I took a picture in front of the Welcome to Fort Smith sign. Then I went over to True Grit (Running Company, which was located downtown at the time), who was very supportive of me in recruiting runners.”
Within the year since that first chair was delivered, Banks said there are now 11 chairs statewide for Ainsley’s Angels riders, all of which have been purchased by local businesses and local donors, as well as a 16-foot trailer to help haul equipment.
Local runners and riders have also participated in various events since then, most notably the Fort Smith Marathon last February, the first half-marathon in Arkansas to involve Ainsley’s Angels.
“All total in the first year, we probably raised $20,000 to purchase the equipment trailer and the equipment we have, and it’s all thanks to mainly Fort Smith businesses, so that’s really exciting,” Banks said.
“We had about 200 runners who had registered throughout the state, mainly here but also throughout the state as Angel runners to help push in races. We had over 50 folks with different abilities who had signed up to be athlete riders in the area.”
Ainsley’s Angels was established in 2013 at Virginia Beach, Virginia. It is named in honor of Ainsley Rossiter, the daughter of a major in the Marine Corps who was diagnosed with Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy (INAD) just before she turned 4 years old.
As a way of helping cheer up his daughter in the aftermath of the diagnosis, Kim Rossiter took Ainsley to the beach and pushed her while running along the waterfront. Ainsley enjoyed it so much, and eventually, her family decided to establish the nonprofit organization and take it nationwide so that other special-needs people could have a similar experience.
Ainsley Rossiter went on to complete 100 road races, including nearly 20 half-marathons, before she passed away in 2016 at the age of 12.
Banks, who is 51, has been running for nearly 10 years. He said he got involved in Ainsley’s Angels in 2015 when he was working at a church in his home state of North Carolina.
“Someone from Ainsley’s Angels asked if I had someone in my church that might have some different abilities who would like to be able to run a 5K,” Banks said. “I had someone around my age who would like to be in a race, that had cerebral palsy.”
The two then began training for a 5K and were able to complete it. Banks said he never forgot the joy his rider experienced upon not only finishing that race but also while they were training for the event.
“I knew I would never run alone again,” Banks said. “I have run a few races by myself only because it’s been a trail run, but most of the races I’ve included someone with special needs.”
Shortly after moving to Fort Smith, Banks was able to get Ainsley’s Angels involved in several 5K running events around the area, the Southwest Times Record reported.
He then set his sights on longer runs, notably the annual Fort Smith Marathon in February.
“I met with the race director (Samantha Cole) and just kind of talked with her and told her what I would need to be in the race and she was just very supportive of it and she said she would do whatever she needed to do to make sure we could participate in that marathon,” Banks said.
Cole was eager to have Ainsley’s Angels riders and runners take part in the Fort Smith Marathon.
“I actually met (Banks) at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa; we had a booth up there (at the pre-race expo) so that’s where I met him and that’s where we started the conversation about joining the Fort Smith Marathon,” Cole said.
“Just to be a part of what he and his program stands for, that was the whole reason why we wanted them to be able to include those kids and those young adults that normally can’t participate in a half-marathon. To get a chance to be part of that and get a medal and to cross the finish line, so just seeing their faces when they crossed the finish line and how they were smiling was everything we could have hoped for.”
After Fort Smith, Ainsley’s Angels took part in other Arkansas half-marathons this year, including the Little Rock Marathon in March and the Hogeye in Springdale the following month.
“I think it was after that (Fort Smith) half marathon was when we just really saw a lot of growth; that’s when our registrations to be an Angel rider and an Angel runner really increased,” Banks said. “It was right after that where I started getting a lot of phone calls from Little Rock, inviting us to these races.
“To be a part of a race, Ainsley’s Angels has to be invited by the race director to be a part of it, so I don’t show up unless we have an invitation by the race director. I think the Fort Smith Marathon really kind of solidified us in the state to where it got people’s attention, so I started getting a lot of phone calls asking us to be in races.”
While Banks will be planning to run with Ainsley’s Angels in other races across Arkansas the rest of this year, there’s an out-of-state event he is also looking forward to completing.
On Oct. 28, he will take part in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., where Banks will have the honor of pushing Seth Allen, a 9-year old from Roland who has cerebral palsy.
It will be a full marathon, which Banks said is going to be the first for Allen, and the two are currently training for the 26.2-mile event.
Banks said Ainsley’s Angels riders are able to participate for free.
They also receive the perks that runners receive with the road races, including a race T-shirt, a bib with the entry number and a medal for finishing the race. There is also no age limit to either a rider or a runner, which usually consists of two or three per chair.
Banks recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of getting that first chair for Ainsley’s Angels in the state of Arkansas. On that night starting at 6 p.m., a dinner was held at First Christian Church; then the following day, an anniversary 5K was held in downtown Fort Smith.
“You already have a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when you complete a marathon or a half-marathon or any race by yourself and it is multiplied tenfold when you push someone,” Banks said. “To see the joy on their face and the sense of accomplishment, to know that they have the same type of accomplishment as you do and they receive that medal, it just multiplies it and it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/