March 1, 2014

The essence of life

Race raises money for preschool, pays honor to young boy

Charles Oliver

— For most children, preschool has become another rite of passage, another step on their way to growing and maturing to teenagers and then adulthood. But Dalton resident Mike Andersen says that for his son Peter, the preschool at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church meant so much more.

“What’s so special about this preschool is that it’s an all-inclusive environment, where children with disabilities participate in classes on a equal basis with children who don’t have disabilities,” Andersen said. “For Peter (who had muscular dystrophy), it was an opportunity to be just another kid. For me and my wife, it was a chance to have some normality in our lives as well, for us to be part of the group. That’s why St. Mark’s preschool is so special.”

On Saturday, hundreds of runners and their friends and family members came to St. Mark’s to show their support for the school and to demonstrate their love for Peter Andersen, who died  in 2008, by taking part in Peter’s Mardi Gras 5K race, a fundraiser for the preschool.

“We have been having our Mardi Gras party fundraiser for many years,” said Ellen Andersen, director of the preschool and Peter’s aunt. “But the race is new. We wanted to try something different. We had hoped to have 100 (runners) sign up. We had about 260 sign up before hand, and I don’t know how many have signed up today.”

The preschool serves 36 students, a third of whom are on scholarships, and the fundraiser helps pay for those scholarships.

“But we have three teachers per classroom, and we try to charge the same as other preschools that don’t, so really this helps all of the students,” Ellen Andersen said.

She says that when the church founded the preschool 25 years ago it was the first in the area to bring disabled students into the same classrooms as other students.

“Our goal was to show other preschools ‘You can do this, and this is good.’ And we are seeing more preschools take special needs children,” she said.

Currently, the preschool reserves one third of its spaces for disabled students. And Ellen Andersen says she thinks Peter would be thrilled to see so many people come out to support it.

“Peter was just the essence of life, despite his disabilities. This is a tribute to him and the effect he had on people,” she said.

Many of Peter’s classmates and teachers from Westwood Elementary School came out to show their support, by running or walking the course or by cheering on those who did run.

Stephen Gregg, who taught Peter’s third-grade class, remembered him as a boy full of enthusiasm and hope.

He recalled a time when he asked his students to write a poem titled “I Dream.” He said that many of the students wrote of dreaming to grow up to be doctors or firefighters or in other professions.

“I was curious to see what Peter would write,” he said. “When he finished and turned it in I saw that he’d written of being an airline pilot. And that was Peter. He may not have been able to do many of the things physically that other children could, but when you looked inside he was just a boy, a typical young man. He was full of life and full of hope every day. He loved his soccer team he was on. He loved his Georgia Bulldogs. He was passionate about every win and every loss, just like any other boy.”

Mary Ellen Pierce taught Peter in first grade, and she said she wasn’t surprised that so many people turned out to support Peter’s memory.

“He was a fine little man,” she said. “There was not one person he did not touch in our school building and our community. He was very bright, very cheerful. He made a positive impact on everyone who knew him.”

Mike Andersen said he was glad that the race had been such a success and hoped that it will grow in the future.

“This is unbelievable. It touches my heart in a way I can’t express. The support we have had, the sponsorship of the business community and the participation of all these runners will move the preschool forward,” he said. “As parents of a child who has passed away, our greatest fear is that his memory will be lost. He meant so much to us, and I think their participation shows that he had an impact on their lives and his memory won’t be lost.”