As a mom, Rachel Muha has grown accustomed to a certain daily routine. After school, her kids greet her and sit around the table, venting about their day. They raid the pantry for fruit rollups, pudding cups or granola bars. If they don’t have homework, the boys go off and play basketball, while the girls play checkers or card games. Later, they eat dinner together as a family.
It’s a rather typical experience for the average parent, with one exception: Muha has more than 50 kids.
She’s the founder of The Run the Race Center, an after-school and summer program for inner-city youths, ages 5 and up, on the West Side of Columbus. Since its inception in 2005, Muha estimates she has served between 400 and 500 students. Up to 80 kids might come through the center on a given day during the school year.
And she is a mother figure to them all, as Run the Race staff members Cassie Seymore and Andrea Henderson can attest. Now 21, both women began hanging out at the center at age 7.
“It was an organization that I never even witnessed before,” said Seymore. “You have your rec centers, but that’s totally different. … It’s like a family environment.”
“I wanted to work here full time because I’ve seen what the center has done for me, so I wanted to be a part of helping other kids,” Henderson added.
“I know that everybody loves me [and] everybody appreciates me,” said Daniel Houston, 19, another longtime attendee who now works at the center. “I’m always happy here. You can never have a bad day.”
Though Run the Race is designed to be a second home, it offers much more than the young people have access to at their residences. The spacious brick building includes a library, music room, tumbling room, game room, full basketball court and even a salon where kids can get facials and manicures. Twice a week during the summer, the children spend a day at the organization’s 8-acre farm in Galloway, growing fruits and vegetables and tending to chickens, ducks, goats and pigs.
Spiritual guidance is also part of Run the Race’s mission. There are crosses on the walls, and multiple rooms are affiliated with different patron saints, printed on a placard near the door. During some meals, Muha will tell a story from the Bible, though she said children of all beliefs visit the center and are not pushed to convert.
But it was Muha’s faith that got her through a personal tragedy, which spurred her to open The Run the Race Center. On May 31, 1999, her 18-year-old son, Brian, and his friend, Aaron Land, were kidnapped near Franciscan University of Steubenville and driven to Pennsylvania, where they were murdered.
“He died in a really violent way,” Muha said of her son, who attended Franciscan University and wanted to become a pediatrician. “We had to search for Brian for a week because Terrell and Nathan would not tell us where Brian was. And during that whole week … I knew what I was supposed to do, which was to forgive.”
“The minute you are willing to forgive, it changes everything,” she continued. “I wanted to know what their life was like. And why did they do what they did?”
Muha learned her son’s killers grew up in unstable environments with family members who were in and out of prison. They dropped out of school and fell into criminal activity. Both were sentenced to life in prison for the murders.
“Everyone comes into the world with hopes and desires and possibilities,” Muha said. “They deserve good upbringings so that they can do what God wants them to do with their lives. ... I guess you could say [Terrell and Nathan] were our motivation.”
Muha established the Brian Muha Foundation and set up scholarship funds for Franciscan University and Brian’s high school alma mater, St. Charles Preparatory School. Inspired by Hebrews 12:1 — “Throw aside every encumbrance that clings and persevere in running the race that lies ahead” — she started The Run the Race Center in the basement of Holy Family Church on West Broad Street. Her intention was to serve second and third graders once a week.
“We put fliers all over the place,” she said. “We told schools about it. We expected this big influx of children and one little girl named Patty showed up. And within 15 minutes, Patty was telling us what to do.”
Who inspires her? Jesus Christ inspires me, sustains me, motivates me, gives me all the strength I need.
What keeps her engaged? Looking at the faces of the young people who come to the center, hearing their stories and knowing they are so hopeful and so anxious to have the life God wants them to have — that is what keeps me engaged. I love them.
Seven-year-old Patty had visions of meeting every day and going on field trips. She brought her friends, including Seymore and Henderson. The center kept moving and growing, settling into its current building six years ago.
“Rachel has a positive impact on the children,” said Sandra Bonneville, who began volunteering at the center five years ago. “She remembers each and every child’s name. She listens to them, supports their needs [and] encourages them to make good, healthy, moral choices. … [She] is uplifting the Hilltop community.”
It’s volunteers like Bonneville, and individual donors, who keep the center operating. “There’s so many good people out there. They just want to know how they can help,” Muha said. “I’ll put something on Facebook now, [like], ‘A family needs a washing machine.’ And I’ll get a washing machine, a dryer, a refrigerator, a couch. People just want to give. It’s beautiful.”
Muha further assists “racers” and their families through a land contract program, buying fixer-uppers on the West Side. The kids help spruce them up, and Run the Race contracts them to families for a low price. (Muha does not make a profit.)
“These are families who have been renting their whole lives, never dreamed they could own a house, and in 10 or 15 years, the house is theirs,” Muha said. “And their monthly payment is lower than what their rent has been. … It keeps them in one neighborhood.”
Overall, Muha’s generosity is rewarded by the young people in a way that is less quantifiable.
“You think you’re never going to want to love anyone deeply [again] because it hurts if something happens,” she said. “And so you guard your heart. And you become a little less attached.”
“They’ve expanded my heart,” she continued. “They have all become my children. I love them as much as I love Brian and my other son, Chris. So they’ve helped me a lot.”