Youth Villages Runners Club: Great things come from small interactions

Runners Club began as a coincidence. Paul Ireland, more commonly known as Coach Spunky, was the “trifecta” Youth Villages didn’t know they needed. He had experience volunteering for organizations like YV, he was a runner, and he was close to Youth Villages CEO Pat Lawler. Spunky runs with a group weekly and one time, by chance, was running alongside a woman who worked for YV. She mentioned how she wanted to get the kids to run on campus and to run in local 5Ks. Turns out, this was something Coach Spunky had been dreaming up, too.  

Great things come from small interactions that trigger a memory, reaffirm a thought, or inspire an action. Someone was in the right place at the right time and just happened to say the right thing. And that’s exactly how the Youth Villages Runners Club was born 24 years ago. 

Youth Villages is a private nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children with emotional and behavioral issues and their families live successfully. For more than 35 years, Youth Villages has worked to radically improve the lives of children across the country with services built around preserving and restoring families. In West Tennessee, Youth Villages offers their full continuum of programs — Intercept®, MST, Residential Treatment Programs, Foster Care, LifeSet™, Adoption, Mentoring, and Specialized Crisis Services — that help children with emotional and behavioral issues. 

Runners Club is a program offered at Youth Villages’ two residential locations, Dogwood and Bartlett, where the youth who live there come out twice a week and run for 15 minutes alongside staff and volunteers. The youth have 15 minutes to try to run a mile, and every mile gets them closer to a prize. They are rewarded when they beat their mile times and when they hit different milestones (10 miles, 30 miles, 50 miles, etc.) Youth can pick from the prize box or the YV Catalog, select gear from Nike or local sports shorts, and more. 

The name can be deceiving. Runners Club is not solely about running. It’s about showing up. It can be about reminding these youth that there are folks who will choose to show up for them. It encourages them to know that there are people who see them, listen to them, are consistent with them, and that it is possible to be part of something larger. Building endurance, beating mile times, and earning prizes are perks to Runners Club. Giving them a person to talk to, or even just walk alongside, is worth even more.  

Volunteering at Youth Villages is especially unique. Like with a lot of nonprofits, ideally, it wouldn’t need to exist. Ideally, these children would be safe at home, running in their own backyard. But this is the reality and for a variety of reasons — be it family instability, foster care, or behavioral issues — these youth cannot be at home. Volunteers often feel mixed emotions when a youth can return home, though that is what everyone in their life is working towards. 

I have been a run club volunteer for over a year now. I have spent about 20 Monday afternoons at the Dogwood Campus. I have run roughly 80 miles with the kiddos that live on their campuses. I have spent 15 minutes repeatedly with some of the same kids. I’ve talked about their weekends, talked about their goals, and have worked on getting their mile time down and their endurance up. I’ve explained the different races I’ve run and how long I trained to be able to run as I can. I’ve heard about their days, their lives, or nothing at all. I’ve heard them ask why I haven’t been there lately and have heard them exclaim when they see me show up. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking to know how much two hours of my Monday means to them. For young people who have often not received the attention they need, it can be transformative for them to see that someone is reliably there. That’s what I do, 15 minutes at a time.  

Whether you want to get some miles in while gaining some service hours or if you feel especially called to the work of Youth Villages or whatever draws you into this opportunity, there is something to get out of it. You don’t have to run. You don’t have to commit to coming every week. You just have to show up when you can, how you can.  

Here’s how you can support Youth Villages and the Runners Club program:

Learn more about their programming





Dannon Thornton is the Director of Community Engagement at Volunteer Odyssey. She graduated from the University of Memphis where she spent lots of time falling in love with the city through volunteering. You can contact her at

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