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The Road Leads To The Lower Ninth Ward

  • By Mario Fraioli
  • Published Feb. 11, 2011
  • Updated Feb. 11, 2011 at 2:51 PM UTC

On a road trip with no real destination, Gwen & Zach Griffith stopped in New Orleans and have made a big impact at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Center.

Zach Griffith running Sunday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon to raise money for community center.

Written by: Duncan Larkin

At some point in their lives, many people dream of giving up all their possessions and hitting the road for a while: open highways, endless adventures, and uncertain destinations are notions ingrained in the American spirit that dates back to the days of pioneers and Ponderosa wagons. For Gwen and Zach Griffith of Salt Lake City, Utah, this concept of simplistic minimalism was more than a dream; it was reality.

The young couple recently sold their home as well as their cars. They abandoned their successful careers in order to set out on an adventure with no definite plan and no real destination. Along with their dog, Griffin, they loaded up an RV and headed for the first highway they could find.

The couple turned east and found themselves in New Orleans—specifically the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit sections during Hurricane Katrina. “We couldn’t believe what we saw,” Zach recalls. “As we drove from block to block we were stunned and silent. We didn’t come here looking for a cause, it found us.”

Originally planning to stay in New Orleans for just a weekend, the couple changed their minds and extended their visit for nearly a month. They were compelled to help out in some way.

The couple started  volunteering at the Lower 9th Ward Village, a non-profit project to build a community center in the neighborhood. The center’s founder, “Mack” McClendon, was hoping to provide his neighbors with literacy and job training, free meals for the homeless, a gymnasium and after-school programs for local children.

Zach and Gwen painted walls, pushed brooms, and hammered nails, completing over 160 hours of manual labor in support of the community center. But the center needed more than just willing hands and a strong work ethic; it needed money. A devoted runner for the past 15 years, Zach saw another chance to help the center by raising money through running the Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon.

Thus far, he has raised over $1,000 in cash contributions for the community center and ultimately hopes to collect $10,000 to go toward the center’s general building fund. Despite being an experienced half marathoner, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon is the first time Zach has combined charity and volunteer work with a sporting event. “It has changed my outlook on competition for the better,” he says. “I feel more inspired and energized knowing that I am running for a cause bigger than myself. This will carry me through the pain and fatigue.”

Since his decision to run the race was a spontaneous one, Zach admits his training hasn’t been up to speed. Still, he’s managed to get in some 4 to 6-mile evening and weekend runs when he’s not working at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Center.

And if the tough miles come–as they usually do–Zach says he’s prepared to weather them by “[relying] on a power greater than myself to pull me through. This will be a special day for me as I hope through this small gesture that I can lessen the burden for those in need and help those who still face inexcusable conditions six years after Hurricane Katrina.”

He’ll also have the support of his wife, Gwen. “She is my support and strength through life as well as this race,” he says.

Though the center will not be completed by the time the Griffith’s hitch up their RV and depart from the Big Easy, Zach affirms he and Gwen won’t abandon the people of the Lower Ninth Ward. “We hope we have made a small contribution in bringing about change, hope, and awareness to the continued devastation of this area of the city,” he said. “We will continue to be involved after we leave here.”

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Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.

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Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli

Mario Fraioli is a senior editor at Competitor magazine. A cross-country All-American at Stonehill College in 2003, he now coaches the Prado Women's Racing Team in San Diego and was the men's marathon coach for Costa Rica's 2012 Olympic team. His first book, The Official Rock 'n' Roll Guide To Marathon & Half-Marathon Training (VeloPress, 2013) is available in bookstores, running shops and online.

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