GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On Saturday, somewhere between 18,000 and 19,000 people will lace up their running shoes and take part in the 40th Fifth Third River Bank Run.
Each and every one of them has a reason for entering the race. Some people are running to get into shape, others are running for a cause — and the Kinzler kids fit that bill. For them, the race is personal and their mission is amazing.
To the unknowing eye, the sneakers that Jake Kinzler will wear for part of the race are just another pair of old running shoes.
But they are shoes he longs to fill.
“I remember one day I went up to my mom and I told her, ‘I want to run the race in dad’s shoes. To finish it for him.’ And she said, ‘I kept them because I knew you were going to say that one day,’” Jake told 24 Hour News 8.
Jason Kinzler had it all: the looks of a Hollywood-leading man; a family he adored; and a thriving career. At the age of 37, he appeared to be in the picture of health.
But on May 14, 2011, Jason Kinzler collapsed and died while running the Fifth Third River Bank Run.
“I can’t put into words what it was like,” said his wife, Kristi Kinzler. “Holding his hand, knowing it would be the last time, and not wanting to let go.”
Nothing could prepare his family for such a shock.
“When I think about wanting to curl up in a ball and not want to go on myself, what gave me hope and inspiration every single day are those three kids,” Kristi Kinzler said of her children.
Thankfully, the Kinzlers had saved. Despite the fact Kristi Kinzler was suddenly a single parent, her kids, Hannah, Jake and Josh, would never have to stress about how they would pay for college.
So when friends approached Kristi Kinzler and asked if they could do something, she said yes. But it wasn’t her family she wanted to help.
“I cannot imagine to grieve myself and wonder, If I had to worry about how to pay for a funeral… or groceries,” she said.
So with the help of some of Jason Kinzler’s co-workers and closest friends, the Jason Kinzler Family First Foundation was born.
“I knew there were families in our community that didn’t have the support that we were so fortunate to have,” Kristi Kinzler said.
The foundation holds a banquet every year to raise money and Jason Kinzler’s college coaches, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin, have been keynote speakers. The money raised is used to help families like the Kinzlers who have suddenly lost a loved one but can’t afford to pay for a funeral or need help with their mortgage. In five years, the foundation has raised nearly $250,000 and has helped 60 families.
“It almost warms your heart. The situations are so similar to what we went through, so we do know what it’s like,” said the Kinzler’s daughter, Hannah. “There’s something so special about being able to help others too. Feel like you’re giving back.”
Which brings the story back to that old pair of sneakers: on Saturday, Jake and Ha
nnah plan to finish what their father started. They’re running the 25K and are hoping to raise $25,000 for the foundation.
And when the kids get to the point on their course where their father took his last step, Jake will take off his size nine shoes and replace them with his father’s size 12 shoes — the same shoes Jason Kinzler was wearing on the day that changed everything.
“It’s going to mean so much. I can’t even explain it. I’ll probably even start to cry,” Jake said thinking of the moment he will cross the finish line in his father’s shoes.
Hannah said that first and foremost, she and her brother wanted to finish the race for their dad. But running means more than that, too.
“We also want to do it to raise money for other families who are going through similar things to what we have,” she said.
Kristi Kinzler said it’s hard to come up for a word that describes what her children will do on Saturday.
“Proud would be too small,” she said.