When she was 16, doctors told Cindy Thomas she’d never walk again. When she was 47, Cindy completed the San Francisco half-marathon in less than three hours.
Thomas, who is Group Sales Manager for Silver Dollar City, ran the 13-mile race, which took place on July 25, to benefit the Student Youth Foundation, an arm of the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA,) headquartered in Washington, D.C. Branson is closely tied with SYTA, which arranges travel for student groups, allowing them in many cases to appear on the stages of Branson’s state-of-the-art theatres.
“Branson is the fastest-growing student performance destination in America,” said Lenni Neimeyer, director of Leisure Group Sales at the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Choirs, drama groups and glee clubs all love to come to Branson for the chance to perform, as well as for the chance to visit many area attractions,” she added.
While many students have parents who can pay for their trips to Branson or are able to raise the money in other ways, there are some who simply cannot come up with the funds to travel with their respective performance groups, and that’s where the Student Youth Foundation comes in. It provides scholarship money to make certain every student within a group can travel and perform.
And that takes us back to Thomas and her half-marathon run. She was one of eight tourism professionals from throughout the country challenged by Kirk Troen, president of SYTA, to raise at least $3500 and run in San Francisco (only six of the eight actually ran in the race). Thomas exceeded the challenge, raising $4200, the most of any SYTA participant.
Doing more than is expected of her comes naturally to Thomas, who, after a devastating car accident in high school, was told she might well be wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. She credits her parents and her strong belief in God for her recovery and for her determination to live a life of giving.
“After my accident,” Thomas said, “my parents told me that no matter how bad things might look to me, there were those who had it worse, and that this could be my opportunity to help others.
“I took that to heart, along with my favorite scripture, Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ So when Kirk called and challenged me, I said, ‘I think I can do that.’”
SYTA’s mission, Thomas said, is to teach and educate through travel. “Branson needed a place in that mission,” she said. “I had so much support. Branson really pulls together as a community.”
Thomas didn’t just show up in San Francisco and start running: she had a long preparation to ready herself for the 13 miles she was expected to cover.
“I started training back in the winter,” Thomas said, running the trails that run through Table Rock State Park near the Branson Belle. Since those trails are largely flat and since San Francisco is quite hilly, Thomas also ran in her neighborhood, which had a lot more ups and downs than the State Park trails.
Not just anyone can enter a marathon and stay with it till the finish line, it turns out. Slowpokes are subject to being picked up by security cars before they can complete the course.
“We were told we had to finish our half marathon in three-and-a-half hours tops, which is a pace of 16 minutes a mile,” Thomas said, “and at first I was worried I might not be able to do that.
“But in the end, I averaged 13:06 a mile, and I came in in under three hours,” she added with a smile. “I was thrilled.”
The run was not without its pitfalls. “When I had run 9.3 miles, my MP3 player went out and my blisters were really hurting,” Thomas said, “but everyone was cheering me on, and I was determined not to stop.
“My shirt said ‘Cindy’ on it, and people were yelling, ‘Go, Cindy! You can do it, Cindy’ and that was so encouraging. But I was really running for Branson, not for myself.
“Branson gives not expecting to receive,” Thomas said. “Branson loves to give back, and I was honored to be part of that giving.”
Although Thomas’s blisters have hardly had time to heal, she’s already talking about running for SYTA and for Branson next year, “. . . and hopefully, next year, I won’t be alone,” she said. She encourages others in Branson to get involved and join her as she raises money for student travel and raises awareness about Branson as a destination for student performance groups.
“When I was recovering from my accident, my parents told me, ‘Thank God for what He’s given you, but also thank Him for what He hasn’t given you,” Thomas said, “and one of the things He didn’t give me was a runner’s body.
“But through training and hard work, I was able to really accomplish something. I’m not skinny, but I’m fit.
“And I’m looking forward to continuing to help disadvantaged students who want to travel and perform, as well as continuing to give back to a community that has given so much to me and to so many others.”
Formed in 2000, the SYTA Youth Foundation is the 501C3 Philanthropic sister organization of the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA). The SYTA Youth Foundation provides students/youth financial resources, and programming through travel experiences that impact the lives of tomorrow’s global citizens.
SYF offer’s four scholarship/grant programs including:
National Youth Day Out The National Youth Day Out program provides a one-day travel experience for deserving classes around the United States and Canada. SYF, in partnership with the National Middle School Association and the Student & Youth Travel Association, plan to provide 25 classes a one-day travel experience in October 2010 in honor of the Month of the Young Adolescent.
Road Scholarship The Program awards fund to youth who, for various reasons are unable to afford the cost of their group’s educational travel.
Ripley Hunter “World Is A Classroom” Travel Scholarship Secondary school students can compete for this annual award by writing an essay relating what they have gained from a travel experience.
Silver Lining Program This program recognizes deserving high school students who have demonstrated through their action, intention, or circumstance the desire to expand their awareness, creating a dramatic life change.