NEWTON — The 27th annual Catawba County United Way Cross Country Invitational is scheduled for today at Southside Park with nearly 40 schools registered. The first start will be at 2:40 p.m.

Along with being a chance for some of the best athletes across the region to compete, it is a community service project-oriented event as well.

Event organizer John Hall said he has always wanted the race to be about more than just the competition.

“It has emphasized good life values,” Hall said. “The young people have embraced it. Each year they are doing important and creative work in their communities across western North Carolina.”

Teams have taken part in everything from community clean-up projects to helping at local soup kitchens to running book drives for elementary school libraries.

Freedom High School cross country coach Samantha Martin hopes her athletes’ service project teaches them no amount of help can ever be too small.

Martin learned this herself when she ran at the United Way Invitational for Freedom in 2012. Her team visited patients in a nursing home for their project.

“I remember talking to an older lady for an hour about her family that lived in Florida. My visitation was the only one she had in months,” Martin said. “It was important to me because, as a teenager, I did not step outside my box often and did not realize how alone some people are.”

This year’s guest speakers, Dave Clark and Doug Cornfield, have an equally inspiring story to share.

Clark is a remarkable athlete who overcame polio as a child to become a professional baseball pitcher on crutches.

He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 1971 and began a path to a 40-year baseball career, including time as a spring training coach for the Atlanta Braves and an assistant coach for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics.

Cornfield wrote a children’s book about Dave’s story, showing the power of friendship and caring.

The Catawba County United Way Cross Country Invitational started in 1993 with 11 schools from three counties and more than 100 athletes. In 1994, the race moved to Southside Park and has grown in numbers ever since. This year nearly 800 runners are registered for the invitational.

Former winners include several state champions and NCAA All-Americans.

One of the United Way’s three impact areas is education, which includes a focus on encouraging students to be productive young adults who find value in giving back to their communities.

For more information, contact John Bailey at 828-327-6851 or visit ccunitedway.com.

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