Over the past six years, Durham resident Carrie Norry has served as a fundraising champion for families battling childhood cancers. Her nonprofit JUST TRYAN IT is named for a friend’s son, Ryan Darby, whose leukemia diagnosis inspired her to make a difference while living in the DC area. She and a group of friends sought to establish an annual, family-friendly event to raise money: In June of 2010, they held the first JUST TRYAN IT youth triathlon, raising $27,000 that year. Norry now manages the nonprofit – along with her three children – full-time. On May 1, she brings the triathlon to the Chapel Hill Country Club for the first time. We had the chance to ask her about the extraordinary event.
Give us an idea of what your accomplished fundraising sum of $750,000 has done for families affected by childhood cancers.
Over the past six years, our funds have had a tremendous impact on families undergoing pediatric cancer treatment. As Dr. Aziza Shad at Georgetown [University Hopsital] put it, “It [JUST TRYAN IT] has changed the way children are treated at Georgetown Hospital. It gives them hope.” We have paid for utilities and rent, car payments, gas and groceries, babysitting, tutoring, and counseling… It is common for a family’s income to be reduced by 40-60% when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Often, the sick child feels guilty. We help families stay focused on getting healthy rather than their everyday financial burdens.
Describe the intersection between your experience teaching and your decision to initiate this project. What was the development process like as you and your partners began formulating the Youth Triathlon?
As a teacher working mostly with students in 5th-8th grade, I knew well how passionate and capable kids are. As a parent of young kids, I struggled to find tangible activities to channel their passion and provide for them a sense of contributing to the community. As a parent and teacher, I was seeking activities to foster empathy and help my kids best understand the struggles of others.
JUST TRYAN IT came to be when a friend’s son, Ryan, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6. I was part of a group of women, including Ryan’s mother, Mollie, who were all training to race in triathlons (the Ramblin’ Rose here in Chapel Hill being among our first). Hosting a youth triathlon was a natural fit for our group. Like the Ramblin’ Rose, we wanted to create an event in which all participants were celebrated for doing their best, where a wide variety of abilities was included, and where a sense of community was palpable. Putting on a triathlon is a tremendous undertaking especially with children. We are here today because of the amazing volunteers and leaders who have joined us over the years… We sell out each year in Bethesda hosting more than 500 racers. In 2016, we are expanding both to Chapel Hill, NC and Baltimore, MD. Ryan Darby will be at our Chapel Hill event this year!
What in particular about your success with the first Triathlon made you want to continue and expand this project?
It was clear that we had found a cause and event that resonated with families. We continue to be amazed at the outpouring of support and interest and we know that the needs of families can never fully be met. And then, there are comments like these from Dr. Gold at UNC Children’s Hospital: “Because of your support, we were able to help a family who is losing their child. They were going to have their electricity turned off Monday and their car insurance is way overdue, I suspect cancelled. Through JUST TRYAN IT we were able to pay these bills. The family is overjoyed and relieved.”
On a personal note, I remained very active with JUST TRYAN IT once we moved to Durham in 2013, but it was not the same. Last year, I decided to start the organization here to help local families and build the community of racers that we left in Bethesda.
In light of a central issue that can be extremely disheartening for families, what has the community response to such a high-energy fundraising event been like?
The response has been nothing short of welcoming and inspiring. My children will race this year with the names of three cancer patients on their backs. Two of them are in memoriam. My children never met these individuals but they have come to know their stories and they will take great pride in hearing these names when they cross the finish line. For any child to learn about another’s life is enriching; it builds awareness and empathy. There are many other stories that come out of our event and touch the community. We have siblings and classmates racing for their lost brothers, sisters, and friends. We have survivors racing for the first time, finally healthy enough to participate. In Bethesda, we have a young boy that has raced with us after losing his leg to cancer. We all want to be a part of something special and meaningful. JUST TRYAN IT is just that.
What sorts of reactions do you witness in non-afflicted children participating in the Triathlon?
The JUST TRYAN IT racers have the opportunity to push themselves physically in the race or simply try something new. Many participants experience an incredible sense of accomplishment and pride when they cross the finish line. Our race is official with timing chips and body marking and provides a setting for racers to do more than perhaps they imagined they could. Additionally, racers learn about philanthropy and giving back to the community. There is a natural high that comes from helping others. If we can provide a forum for kids at a young age to feel that high, maybe they will continue to contribute to their communities throughout their lives. Finally, it is worth mentioning that for families and friends of people battling cancer, this is a concrete activity that kids can do. It is easy to feel helpless when a loved one is battling cancer. Our racers take stock in the fact that they are doing something to help.
How can people support the cause if they cannot make it to the Triathlon event on May 1?
We have virtual fundraising campaigns that can be accessed from our website in which children can donate birthday parties (ask for donations in lieu of gifts), or create their own campaigns surrounding a marathon they are running, shaving their heads, growing a mustache, or hosting a dance-a-thon. Really the sky is the limit. Simply promoting our event on social media and to friends is helpful as well. Finally, we are looking to partner with more area businesses in sponsorship. One more note, if you cannot attend our event this year, there are other organizations in our area that are doing great work to support pediatric cancer patients. Be Loud! Sophie Foundation and Super Cooper’s Little Red Wagon host events in August and September that are worthy of participation.