HOLDEN, Mass. – After a successful reboot of the town's traditional Thanksgiving Day 5k by Fellowship Church this year as the new-and-here-to-stay Holden Road Race, the proceeds raised from the over 800 runners were awarded to the Wachusett Food Pantry Sunday — giving the non-profit organization a boon of over $14,000 to help provide meals for area families in need.
"The success was really a factor of the community's willingness to get involved, so that included local businesses who donated money as well as products and services, and it included volunteers who've donated their time and helped make it happen," said Mark Helfrick, one of the race’s organizers.
In an effort to bring new life to a community race sullied by the failure of former local business, Wachusett Fitness, to pay out the money raised from last year's event to the Pantry, three members of the Fellowship Church got together last May and decided to try and organize a new 5K.
With the goal of still benefiting the Wachusett Food Pantry, Helfrick, along with Pastor Marty Holman and Sean Leary, track coach at St. Peter-Marian High School, got to work reinvigorating the much-loved road race and renewing the community fundraiser at the heart of it.
"At that point we had no experience, no one had organized a road race before, we had no idea what we were supposed to do, there was no step by step guideline – it was all learn as you go."
While the group started from scratch, as the months went by, the work went on, and word got out about their endeavor, community support slowly poured in and the race began to take shape.
"We slowly got sponsors, and we slowly got people registering online, so by early November it looked like we were going to have a nice race," recalled Helfrick. "We had like 400 to 500 people and 25 sponsors, so I was thinking this was going to be a nice race and then maybe next year will be big."
Then, just a week or two before Thanksgiving, registrations started coming in fast, and a new sponsor was added almost every day until over 40 had signed on to support the race.
"We could barely keep up with out web page as we tried to keep it current with new sponsors," he added.
Furthermore , the day before the race, the registration event planned at 4:00 p.m.at Fellowship Church had people lined at the door at 3:30, and volunteers ended up working until 9 p.m. to get everybody and everything ready for the next morning.
"At that point I knew this was going to be a little different than I thought," said Helfrick, who along with the volunteers got back to work again at 5:30 a.m. at Big Y to set up for the start of the race.
Finally, at 8:00 a.m., with Sheriff Lew Evangelidis on stage and all the participants set, Helfrick was among the mass of more than 800 people comprised of runners and walkers of all ages as well as families, friends and neighbors that left the line at the call of "ready, set, go!"
"The next 20 minutes of my life were some of the best 20 minutes ever because I just got to cruise around that course and see all of the volunteers smiling an clapping, people made signs, people from the town came out – you could just see how much this race meant to everybody and how everyone really came together to make this happen, and it was all for a really great cause."
Now, a few weeks after the event, Helfrick had the opportunity to award the Food Pantry with a check for $14,434 – the result of all of the proceeds from the race.
As she received the check, Wachusett Food Pantry director Karen Halley choked up as she extended her gratitude.
"I just want to thank you for all your hard work," she told them, "and Merry Christmas."
Since 1995, the Wachusett Food Pantry has offered a free-of-charge emergency monthly food program to any family in the region with either a short-term or long-term need.
Upcoming general distributions will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17, with senior distributions from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 16.
Helfrick added, "given the history of a race where money hasn't gone to where it was supposed to in the past, it was nice to be able to give it just a few weeks after the event – especially during the holiday season. I think that really meant a lot to the food pantry."
Of course, the organizers also reaped priceless rewards from their involvement.
"I love community events, and so playing an important part of this one, it was such a blessing to see it all come together in the end," Helfrick said.
"It was a lot of work, but we expected it to be a lot of work. But now when we do it again next year, the path is already blazed, so it should go a lot more smooth in terms of what needs to get done when," he said, further adding that the community can "get ready for an even better event next year."