By Anna Homa
Runners of all ages gathered at the starting line Saturday morning. With ear buds in and running shoes laced, they were all eager for their race to start.
The starter barked out the command, “Go!” And 117 runners took off through the streets of Berea to raise money for the So That All May Play HomeRun 5K to benefit The Matt Ross Fund.
Raising $5,365 in its third year, the HomeRun 5K is the main fundraiser for The Matt Ross Fund, which is celebrating a decade of helping children play youth league baseball by paying fees for those in need.
“[The fund] is helping kids that might not be able to play,” said Diane Kerby, HomeRun 5K volunteer and Berea City Council member. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Established in the spring of 2003, the nonprofit is the brainchild of Linda Ross, who wanted to do something positive in the memory of her late son, Matthew Braden Ross.
A 2000 Berea Community School graduate, Matt died suddenly in the fall of 2002, just two years after graduating.
“We were just trying to make something good out of a bad situation,” Linda said.
The fund initially helped ball players in Madison County, covering fees for more than 300 children in the Berea Youth League to date.
But Matt’s legacy has since helped baseball and softball players in Rockcastle, Jackson and Garrard counties, too.
Matt was an avid baseball fan from an early age, his mom said.
He bonded with his grandfather by keeping up with professional baseball players and their statistics, his mother said. He could recall the tiniest details in each game — from what uniform the players were wearing to what the weather was like at the stadium.
Linda wanted to help other children enjoy the game her son loved so much by raising money in his memory.
“Children gain so much from their experience playing for the youth league,” Linda said.
Children learn to be part of a team, instilling good sportsman-like behavior and some humility, whether they liked playing the game or not, she said.
“They are sweaty and dirty, but come off the field as happy as can be. Good, bad or indifferent, you gain something from it.”
Linda knew from experience how expensive it is to have a child play in a sport, keeping them in cleats, gloves, uniforms and other equipment.
The fund originally paid for children’s equipment, but after looking at assistance requests, Linda realized families also needed help with fees.
With T-ball fees at $60 and rookie, major and minor leagues at $70, some parents with more than one child playing were having a hard time coming up with the money, she said.
Families had to decide which child would get to play one year and which child would sit out.
“How do you choose?” she asked.
This year, the fund received 58 requests for financial assistance totaling nearly $4,000.
Through entry fees, sponsorships, donations and a grant, fundraisers not only met, but also exceeded that goal, Linda said.
In 2011, The Matt Ross Fund paid $3,600 in fees for 54 children. But as the number of runners in the HomeRun 5K increase each year, so does the number of families who need financial assistance, she said.
Although a cap is set on how many children can be aided every year, there are always a greater number of assistance requests, she said.
However, with “hard work, determination and good volunteers,” Linda said, enough is raised to cover everyone that puts in a request.
This year’s turnout was the biggest yet for the HomeRun 5K, which is now part of the Berea Championship Series of road races (for details, visit www.runberea.com).
For the first time, the event featured vendors’ booths selling anything from Thirty-One products and Girl Scout cookies, to original artwork by Brian Wylie (who created the portrait of Matt in the fund’s logo). One booth sold handmade decorative tiles and personalized mugs, while the Berea Youth League ran a concession stand offering healthy snacks.
Berea-based group Madisyn and several other local bands also performed a free concert after the race.