Another Berry Long Run honors lost loved ones, brings community together
Those passing through the one-flashing-light town of Gaston this Saturday are liable to see games of pumpkin ball, rock-paper-scissors tournaments, grilled food, bounce houses, the Hunter Smith Band and even the world's longest field goal kick. Behind all of that, however, is a tight-knit community of people coming together for a good cause.
The Another Berry Long Run fundraiser will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the center of town, outside The Barking Cow ice cream shop. When the first Berry Long Run was put together seven years ago, event founder and coordinator Benji Koontz had no idea it would grow into the community celebration it is today.
"Ryan Berry is kind of where all this started," said Koontz, whose wife, Audra Koontz, also helps run the event. "Ryan told me he had cancer, and from then until we finally did the first marathon, the idea to help was just bouncing around inside me."
Berry was diagnosed in 2001 with metastatic melanotic schwannoma, an extremely rare form of cancer. Koontz wanted to find a way to help, and in 2010, the first Berry Long Run was held.
Since then, the event was renamed to "Another Berry Long Run" and has been held every year to benefit a family in the community that has endured a life-altering illness or loss, as well as contribute to multiple memorial scholarship funds.
“I loved the idea of creating this event that would help other people and continuously pay it forward,” Kris Berry said.
Though Ryan Berry died in January 2015, after a long fight with his illness, Kris Berry believes the event helps his spirit live on.
“I think this charity really reflects him and his true self,” she said. “It’s about him and how he affected lives, but it’s also always been about paying it forward to other families.”
This year, ABLR is supporting several memorial scholarships, including the Alex Cullum Memorial Scholarship Fund. Cullum died in July after being electrocuted by a down power line following a car accident. He was 19 years old and had recently graduated from Wes-Del High School.
To raise funds for his memorial scholarship, Cullum’s mother and Koontz’s wife, Audra Koontz, will be selling t-shirts while he raises money for additional scholarships during the world’s longest field goal approach, which will take place during the intermission of the community concert.
Musician Jake Hendershot will open the concert for the Hunter Smith Band. Hunter Smith, a former punter for the Indianapolis Colts, will also be kicking three field goals for charity before he goes onstage.
During intermission, Koontz will conclude his mile-long run by kicking his three field goals to complete the world’s longest field goal approach. Squares in a painted grid behind the field goal posts were sold, and the money from both the punts and kicks will benefit the Rob Bironas Fund in Nashville and the Ryan D. Berry Memorial Scholarship.
The idea for the world’s longest field goal approach originated out of a casual joke made by Ryan New, a longtime volunteer, cousin of Koontz and brother of Kris Berry.
“It came up as a joke, and with Benji, if you tell him a joke, he’s liable to take it literally and carry it out,” New said. “He raises quite a bit of money with it.”In addition to the football kicks and concert, ABLR also hosts the largest rock-paper-scissors tournament with children from the town, as well as pumpkin ball tournaments, bouncy houses and food. Beneath all the fun, however, the heart of Another Berry Long Run has always been about supporting local families in the face of tragedy.
“From the moment [Ryan] was diagnosed, the community supported me – all the times we had to go to the Mayo Clinic and people helped with my kids, everyone that donated money to his scholarship fund – I couldn’t imagine people doing this with any other community,” Kris Berry said.
Jason Adams, a pastor at ABLR-sponsor CommUNITY Church, has experienced the generosity of ABLR first-hand. His family received support and donations from the event in 2011 after his sister-in-law, Lisa “Nettie” Hankins, was killed by her husband.
“When our family went through a pretty rough tragedy, to see the outpouring of love and support from so many people that, frankly, I didn’t know my family had touched, it was a humbling and really sweet experience,” Adams said.
Adams hopes that at the 2017 ABLR, the same love and support his family experienced will be passed on to the Cullum family. In addition to the t-shirt sales, Andy Cullum, Alex Cullum’s brother, will be presented with a special football after the longest field goal event in memory of Alex.
That kind of show of community support is right in line with Berry’s original message.
“Before he died, Ryan Berry told me wanted to be sure that every year, the ABLR t-shirts would say, ‘Strength for today … Hope for tomorrow,’” Koontz said.
As the 2017 Another Berry Long Run approaches, the spirit of Berry’s wish for hope is evident in the hard work and dedication of Gaston’s community members.