As competitors in Saturday’s Ironman Maryland triathlon register at Long Wharf in Cambridge today, they each receive a special welcome from a local child. Thanks to an idea from late race director Gerry Boyle, every year Dorchester County Public Schools students in pre-K through eighth grade pen letters to the athletes from nearly 60 countries who travel here to swim, bike and run through the county and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Valerie Goff, DCPS communications and community outreach specialist, who was entrusted with Boyle’s brainstorm, said she didn’t expect the letter-writing project to become as big as it has. “Last year, we probably did over 2,000 letters.”
While the messages include encouragement and advice for the athletes, Choptank Elementary teacher Alleen Messick makes sure her second-grade students benefit from them as well. “The kids are able to use some of the skills they’re learning at school to help support and encourage the racers.”
The practice of those skills, which include forming ideas, expressing ideas in written form and writing conventions, are not all the children get out of their work.
“It also helps the kids because the messages they’re giving the people who are competing are the same messages that they can use for themselves when things are hard at school,” Messick said.
Only one week into the school year, Messick had her students get right to work on their letters, because the competitors would arrive a week later. She gave each child a half-sheet of yellow paper with a drawing of an athlete on one side and space for the message on the other. The kids wrote their letters of encouragement, colored the athlete drawing, added their own pictures if they wanted to, and decorated the whole thing with stickers.
Goff said she feels that the project is important because of how much Ironman means to Dorchester County. “They bring so much to the community financially by supporting our businesses. So many people rent out rooms in their houses.”
Ironman gives back in other ways, including to DCPS. In 2017, Ironman Maryland donated more than 600 backpacks to the school system. After athletes used newly built bikes in the 2019 race, they were given to the schools as reading-incentive prizes for the students. The Ironman Foundation has also helped build new playgrounds and gymnasiums in area schools.
But the primary benefit for Messick’s second graders is the excitement of knowing someone will read what they wrote and feel empowered by it. And, as has happened in past years, some of the kids likely will get responses from the delighted athletes.