Participants wear the official t-shirt from HomeFront’s 2019 run/walk.

The race is still on!

A local charity has decided that it will hold its annual summer run/walk fundraiser despite the ongoing pandemic. But there should be no worries about the participants maintaining a safe distance from each other—this event race will be be virtual.

HomeFront’s Virtual Run/Walk for Hope on Sunday, June 7, will feature multiple ways for people to separately and communally support the charity’s cause. Distance options include 10K ($30 donation), 5K ($30), one mile ($20), or a dog walk ($20). People can participate by running or walking through their neighborhoods, park paths, or even inside their homes on treadmills.

HomeFront, based in Lawrence Township, provides a multitude of services to families that are are battling poverty, suffering from homelessness, or are at risk of being homelessness. It also has a family campus in Ewing.

The proceeds from the annual 5K go to support HomeFront’s Joy, Hopes & Dreams program, which benefits some 400 local kids. Almost 1,000 people participated last year’s event—HomeFront’s Rock & Roll for Hope 5K and one-mile run/walk.

“The point of the program is to give local children in need the opportunities and nurturing and educational support and mentoring that they might not receive otherwise,” said Suki Wasserman, HomeFront community engagement coordinator.

Many families in need have multiple kids involved with HomeFront’s programs. For example, the mother of one family, who has four boys between the ages of 7 and 13 involved, told Wasserman that it’s not safe in her neighborhood for the kids to play anywhere but their own yard. HomeFront opens their world to opportunities they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

Activities include ice skating, academic enrichment, going to the movie theater or the beach, sports leagues, art classes and an eight-week summer camp.

The run/walk event will help raise funds so HomeFront can continue to offer the opportunity to help out the community while getting participants outside and enjoying the outdoors at a safe distance from others.

Participants can go to HomeFront’s Facebook event page to share their involvement ahead of time to show friends, family and neighbors they are helping out. By forming virtual teams, inviting others and using word of mouth to help spread that the run will go on as planned, HomeFront hopes this year will be a similar shared experience.

By turning the run/walk into a virtual experience in order to satisfy social distancing recommendations, HomeFront has worked to help ensure the community feel of the event is still felt.

“There are a lot of people stuck at home who don’t know how to help, and this is a really, really great way for people to show support and help raise money for a good cause,” said Daniel Brox, principal of ZS Associates, one of the run’s corporate sponsors.

ZS, a global professional services firm based in Princeton, has organized the biggest team participating in the run for the last two years.

The company’s community outreach arm, ZS Cares, which promotes involvement in corporate social responsibility initiatives, decided to pick a local organization to build a relationship with and opted to partner with HomeFront a few years ago.

“Ultimately, we landed on HomeFront because we felt that they had both an amazing purpose, as well as a proven track record of delivering services that helps people in crisis, but also helps address the underlying issues that result in homelessness and poverty,” said Brox, a long-time Princeton resident.

For this year’s virtual run, Brox said that he feels they should be able to increase their involvement as more people, who normally commute to the Princeton area for instance, can participate more easily.

Incorporating a range that goes from 10K runners who may be preparing for a postponed marathon all the way down to those walking their neighborhoods with their dogs allows for a wider range of involvement in the community.

Another way the charity plans to make people feel included in the collective goal is by sending out running bibs indicating their participation in the virtual run. This way when people are walking their dog or besting their 10K time, others will know they are out for a cause.

A Facebook Live kick off at 9 a.m. on the day of the run is yet another way people can see their involvement as a big picture.

The run has been an initiative at HomeFront for nearly 12 years, with the “rock and roll” part being added in over the last couple years. Music played a big part in the past, with local bands stationed along the physical course to motivate runners and bring yet another sense of community participation to the event.

This year, HomeFront’s run will continue to feature local musical talent but in a different way.

Jesse Neuman and Andrew Zielinski  are two members of the volunteer-based committee that helps organize the annual run. They are also members of a local band called THE HIVE.

Both are usually in charge of communicating with the musical acts involved in the event. This year they are working to collect recorded material from bands who are primarily from the Princeton, Hopewell, Pennington, Montgomery, West Windsor and Philadelphia areas.

Neuman and Zielinski are also working towards piecing together a playlist for participants to download.

“They could theoretically be listening to that as they’re doing the run to try to help create a little bit of a sense of community,” said Neuman, a resident of Hopewell.

Last year they coordinated bands to show up on the day of the race to play, but this year their task is a little different.

“We want to do our best effort to replicate the real life feeling that we had last year of the live bands, so we figured having a playlist would give us our best shot at doing so,” Montgomery resident Zielinski said.

THE HIVE consists of adults and high school students and has performed for HomeFront families and kids before, unrelated to the annual run. This will now mark Neuman’s and Zielinski’s second year of involvement on the run/walk committee.

Ending on a musical note, runners and walkers are asked to upload a video of themselves singing Queen’s “We are the Champions” at the end of their participation, and they can take a picture of themselves and post it to the Facebook event page. The hope is to later create a compilation video of everyone singing to share with the kids in the HomeFront children’s program.

Although prizes for time won’t be given out this year, there will be fun and unique winnings for different achievements.

For example, the largest virtual team will receive a free concert by THE HIVE after the COVID-19 crisis has passed, and for top fundraising, participants will have the opportunity to win a lunch at The Cheesecake Factory with HomeFront founder Connie Mercer.

“HomeFront is a really amazing place,” Neuman said. “None of us want to think about homelessness but it’s a real thing and it happens.”

To find out more about HomeFront’s charitable work and to sign up to participate in the Virtual Run/Walk for Hope visit, www.HomeFrontNJ.org or its official registration site. Registration is open through the June 7 event date.