Raising $100,000 for Kids Battling Cancer? She's Doing it One Mile at a Time

11-year-old runner Kaitlyn Lee runs to raise money for kids battling cancer

There are plenty of good reasons to run: Running will improve your overall health, it can help you find community and it can make you happier. But 11-year-old Kaitlyn Lee runs for another good reason.

Kaitlyn, of Huntsville, Alabama, began running seven years ago at age 4. She finished her first 10K when she was 7 years old, and she earned her first prize when a family member mailed her $10 for her effort.

Her first donation came shortly after.

Since that first $10, Kaitlyn has been putting her aptitude for running to work by raising money for kids battling cancer. Katilyn raised nearly $60,000 in the last four years to support the Jessie Rees Foundation—and she's just getting started.

Kaitlyn and her mom, Nina, talked with us about her incredible fundraising efforts and her next goals. Here’s what they had to say:

Fleet Feet: When and how did Kaitlyn start running?

Nina: Kaitlyn started running when she was 4 years old. She joined me and her older sister to run a Color Run 5K. I had planned to push her in the stroller, but she ended up wanting to run and ran the whole way in the pouring rain!

11-year-old runner Kaitlyn Lee poses after a race

FF: How did she Kaitlyn start fundraising?

Nina: When Kaitlyn was 7, she asked to run a “longer” race. At the time, she had only been running 5Ks. We decided to train and run the Cotton Row 10K. My aunt sent Kaitlyn $10 in the mail as a congratulations for running her first 10K.

Kaitlyn then came to me and asked if I thought others would give her money for running and she could donate it to someone in need. I had been following the Jessie Rees Foundation for several years and thought raising money for kids with cancer would be something Kaitlyn could understand. I showed her the video on their webpage telling the story of how Jessie started making Joy Jars when she was sick. Kaitlyn immediately said, “Yes I want to run to raise money to help them send Joy Jars to kids fighting cancer.”

FF: Tell us about Running for Joy, The Jessie Rees Foundation, and why you chose to raise money for this cause.

Nina: The Jessie Rees Foundation was started when the Rees family’s daughter Jessie was going through treatment for an incurable brain tumor (DIPG). Jessie wanted to help the other kids fighting cancer. After Jessie passed away from her cancer, her parents kept the foundation going to honor Jessie’s wish of helping all kids fighting cancer to Never Ever Give Up (NEGU). The foundation sends Joy Jars and other boosts of Joy to kids fighting cancer to help cure bad days.

FF: How much money have you raised to date?

Nina: Kaitlyn has raised $58,000 to date, and when a donation that we mailed (in March) hits she will pass the $59,000 mark.

FF: Are you still fundraising? If so, what is your current goal?

Nina: Yes, Kaitlyn is still fundraising. Her current goal is to reach $100,000.

FF: Shaving your head was such a fun, bold statement to celebrate your fundraising accomplishment! What was it like to do that? Do you have any other plans to celebrate or raise awareness?

Kaitlyn: Shaving my head was very exciting and I didn’t realize how many people really supported me until I saw how many came to my “Go Bald” event. I don’t have any other events planned yet, but I will definitely have some in the future to celebrate and raise awareness.

FF: Tell us about your current running goals.

Kaitlyn: My current running goal is to run as many races as I can this year to help spread my story and encourage people to help me reach my Joy Jar fundraising goal. Last year I ran over 50 races. I will be ending the year by running the St. Jude Half Marathon in Memphis as a St. Jude Hero on Team Carson Cure. Carson is my friend fighting Leukemia for the third time.

FF: What else do you like to do in your free time? (Which I imagine you don't have much of!)

Kaitlyn: I spend most of my free time at gymnastics training—12 hours a week. I am on a competitive gymnastics team. Most weekends I run races and compete in gymnastics meets. I also like to spend time with my friends.

11-year-old runner Kaitlyn Lee poses for a photo in Huntsville, Alabama

FF: What is your proudest accomplishment in running or otherwise?

Kaitlyn: I am proud that I was able to reach my $50,000 fundraising goal, and I am proud of all the amazing people I have met while running. It is fun to place at races, but that is not the most important thing to me. My favorite local race is the Cotton Row 10K! I love running up the big hills and high-fiving people as they make their way up!

FF: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Kaitlyn: When I grow up I want to be a Medical Oncologist. I would love to find a cure for cancer.

FF: Nina, what has it been like for you to see Kaitlyn achieve these impressive goals?

Nina: Watching Kaitlyn achieve these goals has had me just amazed. As a parent you feel like you should be the one teaching your kids. But I feel like she has taught me so much about having compassion for others and doing things for a purpose and not just for yourself.

FF: As a mom, what do you hope she gains from this experience? Any special insights or things you’d like to share?

Nina: From this experience I hope she realizes that you can do anything you set your mind to no matter how small or big. I want her to realize that just one person can make a huge impact on the world when they focus on helping others and not just on themselves. I also want her to keep the mindset as she continues her running that running for a purpose is more rewarding than running to win.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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