Annual 5K puts spotlight on FOCUS

Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 11:37
  • Runners leave the starting line in the FOCUS Inc. 5K on Saturday, April 29, 2017 in downtown Eagle River. The innaugural race attracted more than 200 competitors. (Star file photo/Matt Tunseth)
  • Eli Moore, right, leads a group of runners at the start of the FOCUS Inc. 1-mile walk/run on Saturday, April 29, 2017 in downtown Eagle River. (Star file photo/Matt Tunseth)

One man’s journey toward autism awareness is helping raise the profile of an Eagle River organization whose mission isn’t always clearly understood.

“They’ve really helped walk me through the process in general of understanding what autism was,” said Michael Harlow, whose two children are on the autism spectrum.

Harlow’s wife first noticed their children having difficulty keeping up with their peers when it came to verbal communication. However, he was initially resistant to the diagnosis.

Through the help of FOCUS Inc., Harlow said his children have improved and he’s gained a new appreciation for the local nonprofit.

“FOCUS is an awesome charity,” he said of the group, whose name stands for Family Outreach for Understanding Special Needs.

As a way of giving back to the group, Harlow (who also serves on the FOCUS board) helped found the group’s FOCUS Family 5K race, which on Saturday will celebrate its second anniversary race.

The purpose of the event is to spread the word about FOCUS, whose programs range from autism awareness, infant learning, applied behavior analysis services and programs for families.

“We are a very broad agency that serves all ages, including adults, and it’s not just developmental disabilities, but maybe kids who need social skills training,” said FOCUS executive director Diane Pogue. “We’re not just one thing.”

Having a big event to spread awareness has been a boon for the organization.

“It’s something anyone in the community can participate in and get to know what we do,” Pogue said.

A Captain in the Army reserve, Harlow said he got into running after his first child was born. At that point, he said he weighed more than 300 pounds, and turned to running as a way to slim down — eventually losing more than 130 pounds.

“Running was a big part of that,” he said.

Pairing his love of running with his appreciation for FOCUS seemed like a natural fit, Harlow said.

“I enjoy running and it seemed like something I could do to raise money and awareness for FOCUS,” he said.

As a first-time event organizer, Harlow teamed up with FOCUS staff to create the innaugural race, which last year attracted 206 entrants. Planning the race turned into a bigger endeavor that he’d anticipated, Harlow said.

“There was a lot more to it than I thought,” he said.

Organizers are hoping this year’s turnout will be bigger than last, and they’re optimistic more people will be drawn to the springtime event.

“Hopefully it’ll be a big turnout,” Pogue said.

Pogue said the race has been a welcome addition to the organization’s calendar.

“This has been a super contribution,” she said.

As for Harlow, this will be his last year helping out with the race. An Army veterinarian, he’s received orders to ship out soon and will be leaving Alaska for an assignment in the Lower 48. But he’s hopeful the race’s legacy lives on long after he’s headed south.

“I hope that it stays and continues to run,” he said. “I think FOCUS is an awesome charity and i think that the race is a great way to support them, so if it continues on that would just really make me happy.”

The race is set to begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 28 on Regency Drive in Eagle River. Cost is $45 and participants can register online at athlinks.com/event/focus-family-5k-2018-191810. For more information, visit FOCUS online at focusoutreach.org or call them at (907) 694-6002.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274.

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