‘Unbreakable spirit’ calls runners to Neely Henry Lake

In the early morning hours, it’s not uncommon to see fishermen dotting the road on the way to Neely Henry Dam near Gadsden.

As dawn’s light dapples like diamonds across Neely Henry’s emerald green waves, some fishermen might believe they’ve found paradise.

Kristen Hollis found her heaven on Earth as she sprinted through carefully plotted paths for the inaugural Neely Henry Dam 5K in July. She was among 350 folks who trekked the two-lane bridge above the dam, which spans Ohatchee to the east and Ragland to the west.

Neely Henry Dam 5K supports the community

“Running the bridge is something you just don’t get to do,” said Hollis, a member of the Gadsden Runners Club for four years. “There’s always traffic. This was the chance for a really good run.”

“I enjoy the trees and the scenery around the lake,” said Hollis, whose 9-year-old son, Hayden, and 19-month-old toddler, Hudson, took part in the Kids Run.

“I had seen the signage and advertising on the way to work, and I wanted to take part in this,” said Hollis, who works at National Cement Co. in Ragland. “We’re here to support our community. Especially as a company, we want to give back to this community as much as we can.”
Mitchell Stewart, pushing his toddler son in a professional runners stroller, said he came out to support the community.

“I just came for a good cause, hopefully to run a good race,” Stewart said.
Alexandria resident Kim Jay admitted she wanted her first trek across the hydro dam.
“It’s the Dam 5K and I wanted to run across Neely Henry Dam,” Jay said, smiling. “I just love running.”

Many supporters were there at 7 a.m. to watch the 5K runners, and to see the Kids Run and the “Unbreakable Spirit Run” for three young participants.

The brainchild of Alabama Power employees Kadie Nowak and Casandra Maudsley, the Dam 5K was created to help families with children who have rare disabilities. Nowak’s son has osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI, a condition in which bones break easily.

“Alabama Power has been amazing,” said Nowak, an administrative assistant at Weiss Shoreline Management whose 3-year-old, Harlan, was born with OI. “We’re so grateful for the outpouring of support from Alabama Power employees and everyone else. It turned out bigger than I could have dreamed.”

“Casandra is a big runner,” Nowak said of her close friend, an employee at Alabama Power’s Logan Martin/Neely Henry Shoreline Management group and a member of the Gadsden Runner’s Club.
Like Stewart, many runners said they were inspired by Nowak’s story. Harlan Nowak has undergone surgeries and quarterly treatments at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham.

When Harlan was born, doctors warned the Nowaks that he would face difficulties. Just days after Harlan’s admission to neonatal intensive care, the Nowaks learned the heart-wrenching difficulties of an OI diagnosis: Harlan suffered fractures to his left femur, left humerus and right shoulder, simply from being turned in his crib.

Despite being told that Harlan would never walk, Nowak’s son is now so active and healthy that he took his turn in a sprint during the Unbreakable Spirit Run. Harlan joined two other children with OI – 3-year-old Willa Brown from Knoxville, Tennessee, and an 18-month-old girl, Charlie Kai from Odenville, whose mother pushed her in a stroller.

Knoxville native Kelsey Brown and Willa drove about 3 hours to take part in the race.

“My daughter has brittle bones,” said Brown. “My friend Kadie is the head of the ‘Unbreakable Fighters’ and she asked us to be here today to represent the families who her organization supports.

“We’re really proud of Kadie for putting in the effort here, and are really proud of the runners, too, for being here to support us, and we’re just happy to represent the families.”

It takes a village to support a village

While creating a 5K run seems simple enough, Nowak and Maudsley quickly learned there is an incredible “back story” to making such an event happen. The Dam 5K required much coordination and volunteerism.

Alabama Power Hydro employees helped bring the Dam 5K to fruition, and added to the event’s success by publicizing and organizing the run. Several helped lay out the course, marking runner pathways with orange safety cones.

At Neely Henry Hydro, Plant Superintendent Martin Wyndham’s seven employees assisted on what is normally their day off. The hydro journeymen shuttled visitors from the plant parking lot to conduct tours of their facility throughout the day, escorting the curious to the “galley” – the lowest area of the plant where the turbines’ hum is loudest. Employees ensured that refreshments were available to runners and visitors.

Hydro Journeyman Terry Smith said the day was rewarding.

“Anytime we have community activities, our employees are always involved,” said Smith. “We wanted to have a great crowd out here, and we were glad to be out here to watch the 5K run.”
Several members of the Alabama Power Service Organization, the company’s charitable arm for employees, helped by handing cold water to runners and supporters. Children were happily occupied with inflatable “bounce” houses and games.

Ohatchee and Ragland law enforcement personnel helped oversee the event, as well as Alabama State Troopers and emergency medical technicians.

Hydro General Manager Herbie Johnson was pleased with the outcome.

“It was a great family event,” said Johnson, who ran in the 5K. “It was a nice way for Alabama Power’s Hydro community to reach out to their surrounding communities. We are proud that it was a safe event for everyone.”

Sharing blessings with others

With a cause so dear to her heart, Nowak said she was moved by the support of her co-workers and community. Funds raised through the 5K will help families with ill children provide for medical bills and gasoline cards.

“That first year of life, there’s so much uncertainty,” Nowak said. “We’ve even attended an OI convention in Indianapolis. We have been so blessed, we want to provide relief and knowledge to other families.”

Harlan has been fortunate to have been treated by some of the country’s top OI specialists, Nowak said. She and her husband, Steve, a survey specialist for Alabama Power’s Transmission Survey/Mapping department, have journeyed as far as Nebraska for their son’s treatment.

Because some families depend on Medicare and Medicaid for their child’s healthcare, Nowak said she hopes the run can assist with co-pays and travel expenses. She noted that many families depend on the income of one parent, because the other parent must devote all of his or her time to caring for an OI child.

“We plan another event next year, and want to eventually have a ‘Dam Series’ of runs along the Coosa River System,” Nowak said. “It has a lot of potential. We want to help as many people as possible.”

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