Zoe’s Race: Racing Toward Handicapped-Accessibility

The start of the 1K portion of Zoe’s Race. Courtesy photo.

When Zoe Nestor was 18 months old she nearly drowned in her family’s swimming pool. The resulting brain damage left her unable to move, breath, or eat on her own. Her parents, Erika and David Nestor, set out to make their home handicapped-accessible so Zoe’s wheelchair could be maneuvered around the house with ease. During the process, though, Erika learned there was virtually no funding available for such renovations, putting an accessible home beyond the financial reach of many families.

Inspired to change that, in 2009, she teamed up with the Howard Center to inaugurate a 5K and 1K run in her daughter’s name to raise money to help renovate homes for children with mobility impairments.

Nestor said her first plan for creating a fund for accessibility renovations was to compete on the television show Survivor. When that fell through, Nestor, an avid runner, started looking at events sponsored by nonprofits, and the idea of a run made the most sense. In 2009, the first Zoe’s Run was held, raising $15,000 to help renovate homes. In 2010, the race raised $20,000, with slightly more in 2011. This year, Nestor is hoping to raise $30,000.

“It ended up being a perfect fit since it’s what I do,” she said.

Erika and Zoe Nestor. Courtesy photo.

The run is a family-friendly event held at Oakledge Park in Burlington and is completely handicapped-accessible. Children run the 1K (sometimes with their parents) while the more serious runners do the 5K distance. Sponsors donate roughly one-third of the money raised, and the runners provide the rest. This year, Nestor is asking runners to try to raise $150 from friends and family.

“It’s a request, not a requirement,” she said, “but it could really boost our totals.”

Families in need of funding for renovations go through what Nestor describes as a fairly simple application process. To date, seven homes have been renovated, and volunteers are working on numbers eight and nine.

Nestor was thrilled at the completion of the first home the organization constructed. “Just seeing the idea become reality,” she said, “probably made that the most emotional home, but every single one has a story that tugs at your heartstrings.”

No applicant has been turned down. Nestor recognizes that there may come a time when there are more applicants than money and volunteer time, but she believes this would be remedied by the creation of a waiting list. The renovations are focused in Chittenden County, but Nestor hopes that will change.

“As we raise money, I’d like to keep moving outward to serve more of Vermont,” she said. “I dream of it getting bigger and one day even having a Habitat for Humanity model.”

Nestor said most renovations involve doorways and bathrooms. Prior to renovating their home, she and her husband felt as though they were constantly banging Zoe’s wheelchair into doorframes.

“At the end of the day, our nerves were shot,” Nestor said, “and you could only imagine how she felt. Renovations made such a difference for us that we wanted to ensure others would have the same opportunity.”

So far, Zoe’s race has taken place in good weather, but organizers rent tents and have access to the Oakledge Park pavilions just in case. The day starts with music from the Hokum Brothers, followed by entertainment from Waldo and Woodhead. Food is donated by Boloco (burritos), Bruegger’s Bagels, Rhino Foods, and Shelburne Supermarket. Nestor said 90 percent of race funds come from donations. “We try so hard to have every penny spent on houses and not anything else,” she said. “Money gets raised and turned right over into the community. Labor is donated, so most of what we spend is on materials. Because of discounts and free labor, we can do two or three buildings for what would ordinarily only cover one.”

Every child who enters the 1K run gets a medal. The 5K run, while still a race, is more fun than competitive and often includes costumed runners. Nestor enjoys seeing the kids with disabilities “run” in the 1K with their able-bodied peers. “I think their peers really love that they’re all there together,” she said. “It’s just a happy day.”

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with her partner Bryan and two cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”