Something incredible has been happening in East Vancouver for the last seven years – all thanks to VPD Detective Mariya Zhalovaga. As the former Student Liaison Officer (SLO) at Windermere Secondary School, Mariya saw a need to provide high school students with a sense of community and purpose, while also supporting their mental and physical health. She launched the student Running Club in 2017, and with support from the Vancouver Police Foundation and our donors, Mariya continues to lead this program with great success in 2024.
“The Running Club empowers the students to be the best they can be,” explains Mariya. “It gives them a sense of identity and self confidence that they didn’t realize they had. The Club creates an environment for students that allows them to grow, and to support and encourage each other to achieve their collective goal of completing a half-marathon, or for some, a full-marathon race.”
Each year, Mariya leads approximately 40 high school participants in the Running Club. Even when her role as SLO ended at Windermere, it was important for her to continue to lead the Club. She had a handful of student leaders who stepped up and helped organize the Running Club on weekdays, and then Mariya would join them every Sunday for a group run. The new SLO at Windermere, VPD Constable Mike Hsiang, is also a dedicated mentor in the program.
“When I was no longer the SLO at Windermere, I continued to lead the Running Club because I saw how much it meant to students. The Club also has a special place in my heart because I have seen each participant blossom as they work on achieving their goals. I also recognized that there was still a need to have positive police interaction and mentorship with youth. I now also include other VPD officers who come out on their days off and mentor these incredible students.”
In addition to students from Windermere, the Running Club also now includes high school students from Gladstone, Van Tech, Sir Charles Tupper, John Oliver and Eric Hamber Secondar Schools. Mariya currently has the students training for a half-marathon on March 17 in Portland, Oregon.
The impact of this program also continues to inspire the folks at Kintec, who in 2021 provided a free pair of custom-fitted, technical running shoes to all 48 Running Club participants. The partnership with Kintec continues into 2024, when once again they recently stepped up and provided a pair of shoes to every student participant and adult leaders in the program.
“Being able to help these dedicated students discover the benefit of proper footwear as they start their journey is special for us; this is our mission across everyone in the community,” explains Dr. Michael Ryan, Head of Product and Innovation for Kintec.
Not only did Kintec staff take the time to expertly fit each student with their new shoes, they are also providing ongoing insight for training progression, injury prevention, nutrition, and race preparation.
“Kintec’s mission is to keep people on their feet for life, at any point in their life, especially when they have the amazing goal of running a half marathon in high school!” adds Dr Ryan. “We understand firsthand the empowerment completing an event like a half-marathon is for someone, let alone someone who is discovering the physical potential of their body at a young age.”
Many students in the Running Club come from homes with financial challenges and cannot afford to buy a proper pair of $200 running shoes. Before Kintec’s generosity, many of these students were trying to run long distances in old, worn-out shoes.
“These properly fitted shoes provide students with stability and help reduce stress on the joints,” says Mariya. “Kintec’s shoes will allow these youth to run longer without injury and will greatly help improve their running experience overall.”
The Kintec partnership not only provides much-needed footwear, it also sends an important messages to these students – that they are valued and have many people rooting for them. Students like Amanda Tom, a long-time Running Club member who is now one of the student leaders of the program alongside Mariya.
Amanda was introduced to the Running Club when she was in grade seven at Renfrew Elementary School. Through the mentorship aspect of the program, Mariya would engage students from elementary feeder schools into Windermere to get involved in the Club to help make their eventual transition to high school easier.
“The Running Club became a safe place for me, it was incredibly welcoming and everyone was so friendly,” says Amanda. “Though this club promoted physical health, it also provided countless opportunities for personal growth. I became more comfortable talking to new people and began to branch out because of the positive environment Detective Zhalovaga had created.”
When Mariya’s SLO role ended a couple years ago, Amanda was one of the Running Club students who took on a leadership role to ensure the continuation of the Club.
“Looking back, I realize I have grown into a person I never thought I could become,” explains Amanda. “This club has taught me the importance of perseverance through our long-distance running training. I am now a mentor, someone who I would have looked up to several years ago. I have learned how to be confident and work with others to achieve things I never imagined possible.”
“This club is more than just a running club. This community has profoundly shaped my identity and my outlook on life. I am now someone my younger self aspired to be, someone I am immensely proud of.”
Students like Amanda are why Kintec is so eager to lend their support to this impactful program. Kintec believes that the Running Club is a wonderful example of how effective running can be for this age group – for the students’ physical AND mental health. They are endlessly impressed with the dedication of both Mariya and the students.
The positive solidarity of the students is also something that Kintec and Dr Ryan can’t help but notice. The students run as a group, actively encourage one another, and stay positive for each other. Dr Ryan has even joined them on a run. “One of my favourite memories of the Running Club was being able to run with all the students through the beautiful cherry blossoms that lined the streets in East Vancouver. I was so inspired seeing all the kids push themselves to finish as the workout ended at the top of a hill,” adds Dr Ryan.
“I want to express my gratitude for Kintec’s awesome support,” says Mariya. “Their support puts big smiles on our faces and makes a huge difference in our training and pursuit of our individual and collective goals.”
The Vancouver Police Foundation supports programs and initiatives that fall under one of four pillars: Youth Programs, Mental Health & Addictions, Community Outreach & Engagement, and Technology & Special Equipment. You can help build a safer Vancouver by donating to the Vancouver Police Foundation.