Back in January, Jean Morris had a vision of her family going on an adventure. The grandmother to four generations of Half-Stepper runners told coach Eric Avery that they were going to New Orleans as a family to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games, and when they got back they would take their medals and march down Macdonald Avenue as a family, too.
“I said [to Avery], ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get there,’ but by the grace of God, here we is,” Morris said Friday evening as she stood outside the bus and watched the kids put their suitcases under the bus as the team got ready to leave for New Orleans.
For the past year the Richmond Half-Steppers have been going up and down the state of California to qualify for the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games. This year 10 boys and eight girls qualified. According to coach Johnny Holmes, the boys relay team is ranked third in the country.
On Friday evening, the group of 18 kids, four coaches and six chaperones gathered at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park to board the bus that would take them to New Orleans. People loaded suitcases and pillows onto the bus, as others gathered alongside the bus to bid farewell.
For coach Avery it’s been a long couple of weeks. All year the team had been short on funding, so four days prior to departure he had to plead with the city council to donate $17,000 to help fund the team’s 37-hour bus ride to New Orleans. Now that he saw the Greyhound bus pull down Virginia Avenue, he took a deep breath and relaxed a bit. “I’m just glad the kids got the opportunity to be involved in something like this,” said Avery. “It’s a once in lifetime thing. Everybody is smiling, everyone is happy. I’m just glad myself.”
Avery said he was glad the bus left around 8 P.M. because that meant the kids would ride a little, get tired and go to sleep. He wants everyone to have fun on the 2,276-mile bus ride, but also wants that time listening to music, watching movies and reading books to be used for reflection and focus. “We came to represent the city, the Richmond Half-Steppers and let everybody know we come to compete,” said Avery. “We come to run. If we win, great; if we don’t that’s fine too but we come to compete.”
Volunteer coach Reggie Doss is a big man. His 6-foot-5-frame would have some adjusting to do once he set foot the bus. Doss said once the team got to New Orleans and set foot on the track, the whole world would take notice what great things coach Avery is doing for the city of Richmond. “I envision these kids going down there, hopefully all of ’em, and pulling a first place tag,” said Doss. “I think they are going to go down there and put Richmond on the map. We’ll be on the back of everybody’s mind for next year’s tournament.”
Richmond City Councilmember Jeff Ritterman wished the team farewell as he shook hands with the runners and gave the coaches a hug for a job well done. Ritterman said coaches Johnny Holmes and Eric Avery run their track program from their hearts. Getting $17,000 from the city to go to New Orleans would not make them rich or famous—they were taking these kids to nationals because they love the kids, Ritterman said. “Even though the budget was really tight, we really couldn’t’ disappoint these kids and disappoint these coaches,” said Ritterman. “When they come back we’ll figure out some fundraising and look for ways to help defray the cost.”
As the conductor put the last suitcase under the bus and started the engine, the evening’s sun was well behind them. Under the glow of the cabin’s lights the kids settled into their seats and looked out the window where friends and family stood wishing them farewell.
Now that the team has departed Richmond, it appears the first half of Jean Morris’ dream came true. We’ll have to wait until next week to see if the city and team have reason to march down Macdonald Avenue.
Stay tuned next week as Richmond Confidential gives you daily updates on the team’s progress.