Rebecca Charles had tried everything she could to help her daughter.
“Early on, she had struggles,” she said of Julia, who has autism and many medical issues. “She really didn’t have any communication skills whatsoever. She didn’t talk much.”
Over the years, Julia had multiple surgeries. Her mother took her to physical, speech, occupational and eating therapy, and she tried to help her make friends. It was an uphill battle.
“If it was out there to try, we tried it,” Charles said.
Then one day in 2014, a friend invited them to a nighttime “glow race” where a team of runners planned to push people with disabilities in racing wheelchairs. Charles was nervous about saying yes.
“Julia does not do nights well,” she explained. “She is usually so stimulated by 5:30 or 6:00, she wants to be in bed already.”
‘Julia loved it’
But they went. To her surprise, Julia loved it. And that night kicked off something new for her. Charles got her connected with that team of runners, and they began pushing Julia in races. She found a community that accepted her.
And she started communicating.
“She started talking to the people around her in the races,” Charles said, noting she suddenly was hearing Julia tell the runners they were doing a great job, to run like their life depends on it, that she liked their shoes and to keep going. The wind, Julia said, freed her up to talk.
“She really encourages everybody, and everybody comes and talks to her and tells her what an encouragement she is,” Charles said.
Over the years the racing team around her changed, but Julia kept going, even finishing a Spartan Race, a Just for the Mud of It race and the Murder Creek Mud Run — all of which required being in mud and dirty water, something she’s always hated.
“She really overcame,” Charles said.
Along the way, in addition to the community she has gained and her personal progress, Julia has racked up finisher medals that bring her comfort.
“Some autistic kids have a weighted vest,” Charles said. “Julia likes the weight of the medals on her chest.”
For her 16th birthday, one of Julia’s running friends started a Facebook page to ask people all over the country to send her racing medals. She received hundreds, and she loves them all, Charles said.
But there was still something missing — the coveted unicorn medal given out at the Boston Marathon.
“Nobody gives those medals up,” Charles said with a laugh.
Getting in the race with a wheelchair seemed like an impossibility until this year’s Boston Marathon added a virtual option to its in-person race. Charles asked the man who had become Julia’s go-to race buddy — Lance Johnson — if he might be interested in giving that a try.
He said yes.
Ever since the Spartan Race in 2019 when Johnson first met Julia, he’d become more than just a racing companion — he and his family were now close friends. When Julia has a bad day, Charles calls Johnson, and he comes and takes her for a run.
“They have built a bond, and Julia is like their family, and their girls are like our family,” Charles said.
Johnson said he’d love to try for the Boston, and they started putting plans in place and getting approval from race officials for Julia’s medical status.
But plans were lacking something critical — the crowd that’s usually there to cheer.
Creating a crowd
That’s where First Baptist Church in Satsuma became part of the picture — Johnson’s good friend, Brent Rawson, is pastor there, and he saw an opportunity for the church to step in and help make it a great day for Julia.
“I presented it to the church and said, ‘Why don’t we do this on a Sunday morning, then come in and worship with the runners if anyone else wants to run?’
“They got really excited about how it could be a really good picture of the love of Jesus,” Rawson said.
The children’s ministry got busy making signs, and Rawson — a local cross-country coach — mapped out the race route. They would start at the church, do a half marathon, stop at the church to give Julia a break, and then do the route again. After the race, everyone would be invited in for a worship service, and they’d grill burgers in the parking lot afterward.
In total, the Oct. 10 race took just under five hours. Rawson ran beside Johnson the whole way, as did two others, one of whom was Rawson’s son, Leith, in his first marathon.
About 25 others from the church, the community and his cross-country team ran or rode racing wheelchairs for portions of the race, including Rawson’s wife, Maria, who ran a half marathon.
“Several pushed themselves to run a distance they had never run,” Rawson said. “One athlete said that Julia inspired him to run the half.”
A crowd from the church stood cheering at the finish line and shot off fireworks donated by TNT Fireworks.
Rawson went straight in to preach a message at the morning service and told those gathered that what they’d seen that day was a picture of Christ’s love, shown through the church and community being there for Julia and also through the way Johnson helped Julia accomplish something she could never do on her own.
It was a picture of the gospel, he explained.
Johnson said for him, Julia is that picture all the time as they run.
“She’s such a special person, the way she thinks, the personality she has — it’s contagious,” he said. “Just running with her, she’ll tell me things about God and how He’s everywhere around us, and things I might not remember to think about on my own. She’s a beautiful person inside and out. She’s been every bit and more of a blessing to me than I have been to her.”
Now that Julia is 19, Charles said she’s so thankful for the friends who invited them to that first race, and for Johnson, who continues to be a family friend. And she’s thankful for the way FBC Satsuma came together to make it a special day for her daughter.
Rawson said the day was as much a blessing to them as it was to Julia, if not more.
“I was reminded of what the church is called to do,” he said. “It will stick with me forever. Let’s be reminded to stop going to church and start being the church.”
For more information about Julia’s Adventurous Journey, visit her Facebook page.