Gonzaga students go the extra mile

Sean Sullivan knows he can expect a humbling experience every morning on his 20-minute drive from Alexandria, Va., to Gonzaga College High School (Washington, D.C.). Each day he passes a homeless shelter and there are always dozens of people waiting outside, regardless of the weather.

It's during that moment when Sullivan realizes that getting up every Thanksgiving before 5 a.m. really isn't such a big deal -- and that by doing so he's making a difference.

A senior swimmer who signed with the University of North Carolina, Sullivan is the co-director of the Gonzaga Thanksgiving Day Classic 10K Run/5K Walk, which raises money for the Father McKenna Center, a homeless shelter on Gonzaga's campus.

The event was created in 2006 by Sullivan's father, Dolan, his older brother, Patrick, and Patrick's classmates Richard Johnston and Brendon Connor. It has drawn hundreds of runners each Thanksgiving hoping to help a place that's an integral part of the Gonzaga community.

"The motto at Gonzaga is, 'Men for Others,'" said Patrick, now a junior at the University of Virginia. "We knew if we put something like this together, we could raise a lot of money for the McKenna Center. All students at Gonzaga have a special place in their heart for the McKenna Center. We thought this was a great way to go above and beyond the call."

Sean has been involved in the race since its inception, from acting as a mile-marker in the seventh grade to now serving as the race's co-director with fellow senior Joey Connor, Brendon's younger brother.

The race takes place at 8 a.m. at Belle Haven Park in Alexandria, but Sullivan is usually there three hours earlier setting up. His only objective, like his predecessors, is to help the McKenna Center, not seek out the spotlight for what he's doing.

"It has nothing to do with the attention," he said. "That's just what a Gonzaga student does. It's expected."

"It's a good feeling helping people and knowing what you're doing is directly benefiting them," added Joey Connor, who participates in cross country and rugby at Gonzaga. "I know that it's helping, and that's good enough."

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What the race has done is raise nearly $30,000 for the McKenna Center, which has helped purchase food and improve the infrastructure at the center.

"The money is important because without it we couldn't operate," said Gary Hines, director of finance and operations at the McKenna Center.

"To keep it going now is pretty extraordinary," McKenna Center director Tom Howarth said. "Sean and his parents wanted to keep it going, and that's good for us. It means we can sustain some of the changes we've made."

This is the last year Sullivan is serving as race director. Next year, he'll turn the reins over to an underclassman, just like his brother did with him three years ago.

"I knew when I left it behind, it would be in good hands," says Patrick. "It's been great to see him push through the adversity and carry on the tradition."

The adversity Patrick is referring to was last year when the race was nearly canceled due to new park restrictions, which said runners could start only 10 at a time and 10 minutes apart from the next group. So the race had to be held unofficially, which meant no donations through registration fees, no official times and no race T-shirts.

But that didn't stop hundreds from showing up and raising $1,200. Unfortunately, those restrictions are still in place this year, but Sean Sullivan and the Gonzaga community will be out there again running and raising money for a center that's a special part of their lives.

"We feel the need to give something back," said Sullivan.

The Father McKenna Center is located on the Gonzaga College High School campus in Washington, D.C., and serves as a daytime drop-in center for homeless men in the D.C. area, a hypothermia shelter for the homeless and a food pantry for families in need. It also provides rent and utility assistance to help people from going homeless. To find out how you can donate to their cause, go to fathermckennacenter.org or call 202-842-1112.