It's hard to imagine Alicia Gonzalez doing anything in slow motion.
"I do enjoy yoga, believe it or not," says Gonzalez, executive director of Chicago Run, a nonprofit organization that works with Chicago public schools to help fight childhood obesity through running and other exercise. About one in three children nationwide is considered overweight or obese and, she adds, "in Englewood, Pilsen or Little Village, the statistics are 60 percent. The inability to have physical fitness is one of the great social injustices of our time, and we want kids to enjoy the benefits of running."
The programs are designed specifically for the Chicago public school system and take place either during or after classes, depending on the needs of the schools and community.
Gonzalez grew up in Pilsen and Little Italy but also spent some time in Mexico as a child. "My mom is Irish and my dad is Mexican, but I stopped going to Mexico when I hit the fourth grade," she says.
After she graduated high school from Francis W. Parker in 1996, Gonzalez went on to Brown University in Providence, R.I. She worked as a program director for youth at the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation in Boston after graduation. In 2002 she returned to Chicago, where she organized community programs in the Logan Square and Little Village neighborhoods. She became the executive director of Chicago Run in 2008.
She started running after college and has run seven marathons since 2004 in Chicago, New York and Boston. She will run the Chicago Marathon again in October.
"The thing that has been constant in my life has been my physical activity," says Gonzalez, now 35 and living in Logan Square.
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Did you always have the desire to help others?
A: My father (Jose Gonzalez) was an artist and my mother (Mary Kay Vaughan) was an activist and an academic at UIC campus. Both my parents were very big political activists, so I've been around community activism and social justice all my life. My whole dream (as) a kid was to build athletic centers because we didn't have one in Pilsen.
Q: What motivated you to get involved with Chicago Run?
A: I was on a board for a Latina all-girls high school in Little Village and I was mentoring them and I saw that all they wanted to do was be on the phone with their boyfriends. So I would get them to run around the block and I thought, "This is what I want to do."
So I started Googling everything I could on childhood obesity and running, and I heard there was a local family foundation (The Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, started by Bryan Traubert and Penny Pritzker) that wanted to start a running organization. So we launched a pilot program ... to get kids running for 15 minutes a day three to five days a week, and they would receive incentives for every mile they ran. This was in March of 2008.
When they first hired me, Penny asked me, "What is your goal?" and I said, "I want all 12 schools that are in our pilot program to say they want the program next year." Now, five years later, we have a wait list, and word of mouth has spread so fast that we've never needed a marketing program. We have 55 schools involved and over 16,000 students in our programs.
Q: Have you had times when the kids' enthusiasm surprised you?
A: So many! I came to practice one day and (one boy) wasn't there. His teacher said his brother had been killed two days before and his house had burned down! This was a Wednesday, his brother was killed on Monday, and his house burned down on Tuesday. On Thursday, he was there. He said, "This is the only thing that keeps my mind from exploding," and I was literally holding back tears.
But it's so true. I always say there isn't a problem that I can't take with me on a run. I might not be able to solve it but I feel a lot better when I get back from that run. At the end of that practice, he said, "I'm going to run (the Shamrock Shuffle 8K) in two weeks for my brother and I'm going to make him proud because he knows I'm safe here." And he did. The shuffle was 5 miles and ... he ran strong. The joy in his eyes when he crossed that finish line — you just can't even put words to it. That is when I started to see the impact that this had, not only on their physical health but also on their mental health and well-being.
Q: What has the feedback been from the teachers?
A: We hear from teachers all the time that they would rather take their kids out for a 15-minute run in the middle of the school day than sit and tell their students to be quiet for 15 minutes. The self-esteem issue is a big deal too. Children are receiving incentives with each mile they run as a classroom, so it's about building camaraderie and decreasing competitiveness. They achieve their goals together.
Q: When you run, do you have a route you enjoy?
A: My route takes me every morning through Logan Square, Humboldt Park and through Garfield Park. Sometimes I go as far south as North Lawndale.
Q: What's the best advice your parents have given you?
A: My parents really taught me about values and community. Every Sunday we would go to church ... and we would pass the same homeless men on the street. ... My dad would give a few dollars to these guys. I would ask, "Why did you do that?" and he would say, "Because they don't have a home and we're going back to our apartment. We need to always give back." For him it was about (how to) empower our community so we are self-sustaining and growing leaders within our communities.
Q: What's your dream for Chicago Run?
A: To build athletic centers that would be ... close enough to schools so kids could walk safely to (them). Right now we are renting out spaces from other places.
We also have a vision to get every child in a Chicago public school up and running. A little over a year after we started, I walked outside of my apartment and saw two Latina children running with their Chicago Run water bottles and their Chicago Run backpacks and they were running with their parents. ... This wasn't during school time — they didn't have to be running, and they got their parents to run with them ... so it was just this moment where I realized my dream was really coming true.