Founder of G.R.O.W. Central Florida Inc., a nonprofit that partners with unfunded elementary school health and wellness programs in Seminole County
Growing up, Colleen Gonzalez was the youngest of four children. “We were a middle-income family, but money was tight, so my siblings and I never participated in any sports. My family was heavy, so in my head, I assumed we would be heavy,” says Gonzalez, founder of G.R.O.W. Central Florida Inc., a nonprofit that partners with unfunded elementary school heath and wellness programs in Seminole County, such as the elementary school cross country running program. It took one adult to tell Gonzalez that she didn’t have to be like her parents, and her whole life changed. “I realized that if I put my body in motion by being active, I could change my life,” she says. Gonzalez took up running, which helped her deal with stress and anxiety.
When Gonzalez had children of her own (Morgan is 15 years old, and Isaac is 12 years old), she knew she wanted them to be active. “My son tends to be a very active child. When he was in pre-K, I was committed to walking and biking him to school daily as a way to release his energy and keep our family healthy,” she says. “During that time (2009), I read an article in Family Fun magazine about the Walk and Roll program, which encourages students to walk and bike to schools.” She decided to put her time and talent to work bringing the program to her kids’ school. “I formed partnerships with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and other local entities.”
From there, she started a weekly Starting Line Friday Fun Run to encourage kids to run before school. After taking some time away to help care for her sick mother-in-law, Gonzalez found that the program was evolving. “When my mother-in-law passed away, my husband Luis encouraged me to start up G.R.O.W. (which stands for Grass Roots Outreach Within) as an official nonprofit,” she says. The program’s focus has narrowed a bit to support unfunded elementary school health and wellness programs in Seminole County. However, Gonzalez would like to see it adopted by other countries as well.
“The middle and high schools have boosters and funding for sports programs, but the elementary schools rarely do,” she says. In the Seminole County school district, 38 schools have volunteer-led cross country running teams. “There isn’t any funding for the team, so each coach must raise money. I’m filling the gap and providing the durable goods they need, such as awards and t-shirts,” says Gonzalez.
In January 2015, G.R.O.W. organized and funded the Seminole County District Cross Country Meet at Seminole State College. “We had over 1,700 elementary school runners,” she says. This past January, Gonzalez partnered with her child’s ninth grade teacher, Fred Finke, to host a district cross country meet at Lyman High School. “A record 1,744 elementary students ran the event,” she says.
Through this program, Gonzalez says she hopes to “inspire other parents like myself, who went from a professional career to being a stay-at-home mom, to start this in other countries. I have resources and contacts. I’m here to support!”
For more information on G.R.O.W. Central Florida, go to www.growcentralflorida.org.
Words by Tracey C. Velt
Photos by Jessica Friend