2019-06-02 || Arts & Hearts 5K For Covenant House - Tomas Orihuela


Arts & Hearts 5K For Covenant House - 2019

June 1, 2019

The Inaugural Arts & Hearts 5K For Covenant House

Audubon Park, New Orleans, Louisiana

This blog post was originally going to only cover race day of the Inaugural Arts & Hearts 5K for Covenant House that was held in beautiful Audubon Park in New Orleans, Louisiana on Saturday, June 1st, 2019. However, after chatting with Susan Opelka and Julie Slick, the post grew since there was so much behind the scenes stories that I could not ignore!

The race was a fundraiser for Covenant House New Orleans (CH). It was the idea of race founder & first-time race director, Susan Opelka. I asked Susan what drove her to create this race. Susan, an endurance runner and full Ironman finisher, said, “I did it to combine my passions. Bringing awareness and a sense of belonging to kids who have been marginalized for way too long and running of course!” The fundraiser helped in furthering the CH tradition of providing a home, food, medicine, education, and love to the homeless and runaway young people being nurtured there. It also provides hope on the journey of these youth away from abuse, violence, and trauma.

Susan told her good friend Julie Slick, a physician and fitness enthusiast, about the idea of putting on a race to benefit Covenant House. “When Susan told me what she planned to do,” Julie stated, “I might have gotten a little excited! I was all in! I had been thinking of ways to further engage the Covenant House residents through fitness and exercise.” Julie has been raising money for the Covenant House for the past 6 years. She mentioned how she was hooked from the first time she walked in the building and “felt the love, hope, and energy behind those walls.”

She started serving on the Board of Directors shortly after her first Sleep Out event. The Sleep Out raises awareness and funds to help support the programs and services offered by Covenant House. The event always takes place the Thursday before Thanksgiving Day. Julie began volunteering on a regular basis by mentoring a group of LSU Emergency Medicine residents who present monthly health talks to the Covenant House youth. “My doctor ‘kids’ teaching my CH kids and breaking down barriers between doctor and patient!”, said Julie.

She then invited Susan to take part in a Sleep Out, and she too got hooked and began working the front desk as a regular volunteer. Once Susan had sketched out the raw outline of the race, they started to collect sponsors, worked on T-shirt designs, course logistics, insurance and permitting, and more details than they ever knew existed to produce a grassroots 5K race! They knew they wanted to get their friends Jenni Peters and Jane Swift of Varsity Sports onboard, as they are well known for their generosity and support of the local running communities in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Varsity became the title sponsor which were extremely generous in providing advice, t-shirts, running gear and more!

Julie directed the CH team training on a progressive mileage building plan that she and Susan, also an RRCA run coach, developed for the kids. They started at ground zero and went to 5K in five weeks! The training program was organized for residents and staff and included two organized training sessions per week and one “on your own” workout. Via Facebook posts, Julie reached out to local athletes, running groups, and triathlon groups to get guest coaches to work with them. Before she knew it, she had a few coaches for the first training day, and she continued the recruitment process until she lined up guest coaches for every scheduled training session!

On the first training day, the kids that participated were mostly wearing jeans, work uniforms, sweatshirts, boots, flip flops, and slides. Varsity Sport gifted each of the kids with a t-shirt and very gently used or new running shoes. It then became apparent that there was a need to gather appropriate running shoes and more clothing to outfit the kids. Once again, Julie turned to Facebook posts soliciting gently used running gear for the Covenant House athletes. Before she knew it, her dining room ended up looking like a specialty thrift store!

Each of the CH athletes that participated in the training and the 5K race would earn a brand-new pair of running shoes as well as a pair of shorts, run singlets, t-shirt, socks, and a water bottle. The cost of these items was covered by over 20 individuals that donated $100 to sponsor each of the kids. Linda Akhter from Varsity Sports attended several of the training runs to measure feet and convince the kids of the correct size shoe that they should be wearing. It seems that when you have a large foot and you don’t have the means to purchase shoes, you probably just wear whatever you are given. Sooner or later you think your shoe size is a 9 because that’s what it says on the shoe you are wearing. When you are measured for a new pair of shoes and the lady tells you that you are a size 13, you just don’t believe her.  “Linda was amazing in gently teaching the kids of their correct size,” Julie said. In total, about 25 kids participated in the race. Some dropped out along the 5 weeks since they were reunited with family. A few new ones were added along the way.

On race day, Susan and Julie learned about race day headaches and challenges. Now with one race under their belts, they are pros, right!?! They worked out the runner timing system issues, but the kids were running late for the start of 5K. Not all the kids that did the training showed up. Some had to work, some decided to sleep in, and some just changed their mind. They are kids after all! But they still had a nice turn out at the race.

New Orleans is always very hot and humid in June. But, the 210 participants got some reprieve since they ran under a canopy of old oak trees lining most of the run path in Audubon Park. The post-race food and concessions were donated by Louisiana Pizza Kitchen and Luzianne Iced Tea. Grace Pilates & Yoga provided post-race stretching and meditation. The water stations along the course were manned by local athletes!

The finishers each received a beautiful handmade pottery medal made by Susan, an artist too! All race awards were created and donated by local artisans, including potters, photographers, metalsmiths, watercolorists, bakers, and others! Additional artwork was also given to the runners via a bib number drawing. Gifts of health and fitness were provided by Louisiana Running & Walking Company, Higher Power, and Grace Pilates & Yoga. Chuck George of New Orleans Running & Walking Systems and Betsy, the Southern Region Director, and Aaron Boudreaux with Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) offered additional support.

“The kids who ran the race...what a day they had. Clad in neon yellow custom printed Varsity Sports singlets, they went right to the front of the pack to start the race. And yes, they were late. From the high fives and ‘good jobs’ on the race course to the pats on the back and congrats at the finish line, these kids were welcomed into our running community with open arms. They were smiling and laughing and knew that this was their day,” stated Julie. Jakiya Muller, one of the Covenant House residents, earned second place overall! When awards were being handed out, it was announced the Jakiya would be starting college in the fall on a track scholarship. Covenant House posted a Youth Profile of Jakiya on their website. See the link at the end of this post.

The Arts & Hearts event also put on a 1⁄2-mile kids race that started a half-hour before the 5K. Due to having to drop off one of my sons for SAT Subject tests that morning, I was unable to get to the race venue in time to capture images of the kids running. I luckily arrived just minutes before the scheduled start of the 5K. The kids’ race must have been a sight to see! I won't miss it next year!

That evening, Linda Akhter went to pick up a few of the residents to take them to the Power Mile race. The Power Mile road race was the 2019 RRCA Louisiana One-Mile State Championship that was put on by the local run group The Power Mile Track Club. There was an Open 1-Mile race that occurred before the championship race. When Linda arrived at the Covenant House, many of the kids were still wearing their run singlets and the finisher’s medal from the 5K that ran that morning. They were reluctant to go. Linda told them to bring their gear in case they decided to race. Three jumped in the car with Linda and they placed 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the Open 1-Mile race!!!

It turned out that the Arts & Hearts for Covenant House 5K race took place on Julie’s birthday. “Wow... what an amazing birthday I had. I am still smiling, and still reliving moments from that day. The goal is to continue with weekly training runs for the newly formed Covenant House Track Club. The kids at Covenant House have been through way more than any teen should have to deal with.”, said Julie. Jakiya Muller may have said it best. He said, “when I run, I feel free”. Both Julie and Susan want these kids to feel free, so they will continue with the run training. They will keep collecting clothes and shoes when we needed and will figure out a way to give the kids the opportunity to be athletes. Julie added, “Athletics does something to a person. It makes you try a little harder, stand a little taller and walk a little prouder. I want that for these kids! I look forward to what the future holds for the Covenant House Track Club. It will take a village, and fortunately we have a great one.”

Arts & Hearts for Covenant House 5K was a success raising seven thousand dollars for the non-profit. The race raised awareness that cannot be measured in numbers. It also created an opportunity for a group of kids to feel like part of a much larger community of runners. The race was also a great success since many people pitched in with the planning of the race, volunteered on race day, and coached or helped with the training of the Covenant House running group.

I end this blog post with one more amazing quote by Julie, “We introduced our unbelievably generous running community to Covenant House and the kids who benefit from its work in our community. We broke down some barriers and we showed a lot of love and a lot of heart.”

For the event photos, visit the gallery at: 

Link to Jakiya's Youth Profile on Coventant House's website: 


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