StrongWILLed runners raise money, awareness

Published 10:08 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2018


More than 180 runners and walkers met in Driver on Saturday morning in the rain, before the parade that kicked off the Driver Days fall festival. Many wore team colors with faces and names of those that they will never forget.

“A lot of times when they sign up, it’s in the memory of someone they lost, and those teams make their own shirts,” said April Brooks, founder and president of StrongWILL. “It’s a personal, memorial type of thing.”

Email newsletter signup

The third annual StrongWILL 5K and Kids One-Mile Fun Run and Walk may have been under overcast skies — with a slight dip in participants compared to last year, Brooks said — but parents still showed up to run and walk with their children, others with their speedy, leashed dogs.

“I’m pretty excited about that. I was not thinking there would be as many people this year, because participation was down and because of the rain,” Brooks said. “It was nice to have them all still come out and support us.”

They followed the Seaboard Coastline Trail before looping back to the Driver trailhead. Some of them even preferred the soggy conditions for the Saturday event.

“It’s flat and it’s not crowded. It’s great,” said Paul Theroux after he grabbed his finisher medal. “A light, cool rain is perfect for running. Even a little bit cooler would have been fine for me.”

Families took photos with their faces in the StrongWILL picture frame as raffle winners were announced. Adults had their own selection of potential prizes, as did the children.

“We always make sure that all the kids get a prize every year, no matter what,” Brooks said.

April Brooks founded StrongWILL in memory of her brother, William West, who died in 2016 from a heroin overdose. The organization raises awareness about drug addiction and helps people struggling with addiction by raising money for local organizations that provide resources for addicts and their families.

Suzanne Brown was there with Team Mitch, in memory of her nephew Thomas Mitchel “Mitch” Lilley, who died from an overdose in 2017. He was 25 years old.

“Getting help is the biggest thing,” Brown said. “Our family was there for him, and my brother and sister-in-law did everything they could. It was just a hard struggle.

“We just need to do more and figure out how to conquer this thing.”

That’s why recovering addicts continue to fight, like Corey Cooper, who was at the event with his mother, Lynn Ailsworth, and Mandi Sabo of Youth Challenge of Hampton Roads.

Cooper has been keeping up with his recovery at the Hope Center in Newport News. This residential program serves men and women over age 18 over the span of a year, and graduates may also participate in the ReEntry phase for three to six months.

He finished his run with 14 months of sobriety under his belt. He said the most important thing is getting help in faith, friends and family.

“I just don’t see you being able to do it on your own,” he said.

StrongWILL was supported on Saturday by a number of sponsors. Chick-fil-A provided chicken biscuits and coffee, and All Out Cycles printed the event’s red StrongWILL T-shirts. Farmers Bank donated funds for medals and other supplies.

Virginia Clinical Research and New Creation United Methodist Church supported Brooks and her team as they have done every year, she said. Pepsi also donated 40 cases of water, five cases of Gatorade and a cooler for the raffle.

The annual fundraiser raised more than $13,000 in its first two years combined. Last year, $8,586 was raised for the Suffolk Police Department to buy four to six automated external defibrillators for patrol cars.

According to Brooks, this year roughly $6,500 has been raised as of Monday for local hospitals to purchase equipment and comforts that will help newborn babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a withdrawal syndrome in infants that’s caused by in-utero exposure to drugs of dependence.

She said it feels amazing to have this much support from the community in memory of her brother, along with all the other loved ones people have lost.

“It feels good. It feels like we’re actually doing something right,” Brooks said.

Donations can be made through the Facebook page at