On Thanksgiving morning, people across the country lace up their running shoes to partake in “Turkey Trot” races. But at St. Catherine Laboure Parish in south St. Louis County, they Run for Ryan.
In September 2013, at 42 years old, St. Catherine Laboure parishioner Ryan McDaniel was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. He started treatment immediately and ended up hospitalized within the first month for emergency surgery.
The parish community was immediately there to support the McDaniel family, said Kim McDaniel, Ryan’s wife.
“While he was in the hospital, some good friends of ours from St. Catherine reached out to us and said they wanted to do something to support our family, and came up with the idea to have a run on Thanksgiving,” Kim said. “We both said no, because we didn’t want to take people away from their families on Thanksgiving morning. But the more they talked to us, they were like, ‘We are family.’ And there’s no better way on Thanksgiving than to start all together with Mass and a community event.”
What became the inaugural Run for Ryan was held at St. Catherine that year, and all the money raised went to the McDaniel family. The following year, Kim and Ryan asked that the money go to another family in need, and ever since, the funds raised go to the Stay Strong Fund (named for Ryan’s mantra during cancer treatments), which supports parish and nearby families experiencing similar hardships. Past events have raised an average of around $25,000. This Thanksgiving marked the 10th Run for Ryan, with more than 750 registered participants.
“I can’t even express the feeling you get when you see that many people gathered together on Thanksgiving morning just to support one another and help each other,” Kim said.
The event begins with Mass, packing nearly every pew at St. Catherine Laboure with people clad in identical Run for Ryan T-shirts. Coming together to pray and celebrate the Eucharist as a community is vital to the cause, Kim said.
“(Faith) is what grounds us. It’s what gotten us through … sometimes when people experience a horrible situation, it pulls them away from their faith. But this has done the exact opposite,” Kim said. “This has drawn us all closer and made our community stronger.”
The run includes both a timed 3-mile race and a 1-mile fun run/walk, starting in the St. Catherine parking lot and continuing through the streets of Sappington. Some runners bring dogs, while others push strollers; the family atmosphere permeates the chilly morning.
“It’s really become this community event that people look forward to, and it’s part of their family tradition,” Kim said.
Ryan passed away in May 2015, and the Run for Ryan remains an important way for the McDaniel family to honor him and continue to spread the kindness they received from the parish community.
“(My kids) get it. They understand that it’s more than just them; it’s about helping others and paying it forward,” Kim said. “They remember different things that people did for us while their dad was sick. And when they hear about somebody else in the community that’s experiencing a similar situation, they’re the first ones to want to help.”
Morgan Brewster and her family — friends and classmates of the McDaniels — have been involved with Run for Ryan since the very first year. In 2017, Brewster was diagnosed with breast cancer. She still remembers getting the phone call from Kim telling her that the Run for Ryan committee wanted to give the proceeds from that year’s run to her family.
“Kim called me and said, ‘We want to help you,’” Brewster said. “I was so humbled. I just started crying. Getting cancer — as hard as that was — the sense of community that came is such a gift.”
“You can really count on our community, our Church,” she continued. “I mean, if you get bad news, while it’s still hot off the presses, you have people knocking down your door to help.”
Brewster is now five years cancer-free, and in that time has started volunteering on the Run for Ryan committee, bringing a deep understanding of the hardships families can face when going through illnesses. “It made me want to be strong for other people who might go through something like this,” she said.
Before the race begins, Kim and her children, Ayden, a freshman at Mizzou; Mallory, a junior at Notre Dame High School; and Jake, a fifth-grader at St. Catherine Laboure; usually say a few words to the crowd of runners. The event is bittersweet each year because they miss Ryan but are also full of gratitude, Mallory said.
“Your generosity and love have taught me that good things can come out of situations like these,” she said. “So on this Thanksgiving, I encourage you to tell those you love how thankful you are for them.”