Courtesy photo
                                From left, Sarah Poppe, James Mattson and April Shrum participating at a previous race event as part of nonprofit Ainsley’s Angels.

Courtesy photo From left, Sarah Poppe, James Mattson and April Shrum participating at a previous race event as part of nonprofit Ainsley’s Angels.

Angels on the Island

Volunteers will push disabled participants during the Mercer Island Rotary’s half marathon March 22.

It’s the unparalleled thrill of pushing someone in a race chair and witnessing the pure joy it brings them that makes it all worth it for Pamela Mattson.

Mattson is a local ambassador in training for Ainsley’s Angels, a Virginia based nonprofit that helps include disabled athlete “angel” riders in race events across the country by pairing them with “angel” runners — runners that volunteer and push them in special race chairs. The organization aims to “build awareness about America’s special needs community through inclusion in all aspects of life.”

Mattson said the benefits that participating in races brings her son, James, are apparent for hours afterward.

“When he rolls in the races, it not only helps him during the race, but for hours after the race it helps him,” she said.

Mattson said rolling in races is therapeutic for him and makes him calmer and happier.

“It absolutely helps him,” she said. “The effect is amazing.”

James, 11, has chromosome deletion 7q36. He was born full term, but Mattson said he spent his first several months in the hospital.

She said he is permanently disabled, both mentally and physically. He is fed with a gastrostomy tube (G-tube), has to have a defibrillator with him always for a heart condition, and also has a suction machine to help keep his airways clear.

Developmentally, he is about as progressed as a one-year-old, Mattson said, and he has difficulties with emotions. She said he also has mild cerebral palsy and can walk a little on his own but not well.

“We like to get him out at the end to cross the finish line,” she said. “He loves rolling in races.”

She said she has always been a runner, and James can’t do other sports, but she’s glad they have this. She usually pushes James, but also other riders.

“This is something we can do together and it makes him so happy,” she said. “That positivity is something you’ve never known before. Being able to share that with him and with others makes it all worth it.”

Ainsley’s Angels is a new addition this year to the annual half marathon event hosted by the local Rotary Club — known as the Mercer Island Half. They are coordinating for a handful of angel riders and runners to participate in the event.

“We are so excited to add this new group of participants to our event because inclusion is so important these days, and Ainsley’s Angels has such a great history of including disabled children in runs,” said Rotary’s race director Wendy Weiker, the city’s deputy mayor.

The club became connected with the nonprofit by pure chance. Member John Hamer said he and his wife were visiting Washington, D.C. for a conference on rare diseases when they encountered a group of people all decked out in pink swag, with several young people in wheelchairs with them.

Hamer struck up a conversation and learned what the organization is all about. The mission hit home for the couple, whose grandson, Ford, age 3, is disabled. Ford has a genetic disorder called CTNNB1 Syndrome, which has effects on the child’s development. Hamer said so far he cannot walk, cannot speak and cannot control his muscles.

He is in a wheelchair or can be pushed in a standing device. He understands a lot mentally, Hamer said, and he can say “mama” and “dada.”

Ford can roll himself around the house in his wheelchair, and enjoys doing so.

“He loves to be mobile. He loves to have some independence and move around,” Hamer said.

Hamer said he loves the motion sensation and also being outside and seeing people.

“There’s just something about it. He laughs. It’s a rewarding experience for him,” he said.

Upon realizing the group would be a great addition to the Mercer Island event, Hamer suggested the idea to his fellow Rotarians organizing the race. He said they loved it and encouraged him to make it happen.

Hamer then connected with Mattson, who oversees the South Sound branch of the organization, one of two in Washington state, and the two began to work together.

Mattson said she is excited for this race — the organization’s Mercer Island debut.

So far, she said they have four or five runners lined up for the big day, and have three or four riders they anticipate will participate in the event. Much of this will finalize last minute, Mattson said, as it could depend on how riders are feeling that day or if they have any procedures come up.

Hamer plans to push his grandson. He said he can’t make it the distance of the entire half marathon, but aims to do the event’s 5K or 10K run and looks forward to doing so. The angels will aid him.

While the half marathon event primarily benefits colon cancer, Hamer said he is glad to bring Ainsley’s Angels in to help raise awareness for their cause. He hopes the partnership will continue to grow into something greater, getting more disabled kids out in the race and surrounded by runners.

“They get so excited about it,” Hamer said.

Mattson plans to push James for the whole half marathon. She has participated as a runner with the group for many events.

She said that when they run the focus is not on time. Those who would like to go slow or walk can. While they do try to match up faster runners with faster rollers, the focus is on the rider and on the team.

“It’s about the rider — it’s about the team coming together,” she said. “It’s about the experience. It’s about spreading inclusion.”

They are always looking for more volunteers and trying to include as many riders as possible. Mattson said anyone is welcome to join their family-like group and participate at whatever level they choose.

They don’t have to run — they can walk, or even make signs and cheer from the sidelines. The group encourages spectators and runners alike to dress up in pink, their team color, and join in the team spirit.

“Come up and say hi. Give the riders the attention they deserve,” she said. “They’re the star of the show. It’s all about getting our riders to have fun. We love things like that.”

Riders also are often dressed up or have props.

Rider participation is always free. All race registration costs are covered through the group and all race chairs and equipment are supplied. Riders get their own race numbers and everything that all event registstrees get.

The Rotary Club of Mercer Island is offering a discount to any runners volunteering to be one of the angel runners at their half marathon event.

More information about Ainsley’s Angels can be found by visiting, and details on the Rotary Club’s Mercer Island Half on March 22 can be found online at

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