Northampton’s signature Hot Chocolate Run benefiting Safe Passage marks 10th anniversary

Wednesday, December 04, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — A decade ago, when city resident Jen Dieringer and her husband John Frey launched the first Hot Chocolate Run to raise money to help address domestic violence, they thought they might be able to draw up to 200 participants.

To their surprise, twice that number signed up and they raised $6,000 that first year for Safe Passage, an agency that provides support to survivors of family violence in Hampshire County.

“We ran out of applications,” recalls Dieringer, who works as a lawyer for Community Legal Aid. “We were shocked at the numbers. Even then, we had no idea how big this was going to become.”

This year’s 10th anniversary event, which starts at 9:15 a.m. Sunday at the corner of Old South Street and Hampton Avenue, is sold out at 5,500 participants — the third year the number has been capped to keep the race manageable, Dieringer said. With funds now coming in from pledges as well as registration fees, organizers are aiming to top last year’s total of $225,000. The money will be targeted for new prevention programs sponsored by Safe Passage.

Coming at the start of the holiday giving season, the annual 2-mile walk and 5K run has become a signature Northampton occasion, Dieringer said.

“People think of it as a real community event,” she said. “We always have families involved. It makes me tear up to hear people say this is their must-do event of the year.”

Among the dignitaries kicking off this year’s run will be Mayor David J. Narkewicz, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan and U.S. Rep. James McGovern, who represents the 2nd Congressional District.

Veteran Hot Chocolate Run volunteer Diane Curtis said that business support for the annual race has also expanded over the past decade. In addition to sponsorship fees, many downtown stores are donating a portion of Sunday’s sales to Safe Passage.

Among the sponsors is Northampton Brewery, which for the fourth year is making hot chocolate for racers in a huge beer-brewing kettle with ingredients donated by Our Family Farms and Northampton Coffee.

“That in itself is amazing to see,” said Curtis, a Sunderland resident who is chairwoman of Safe Passage’s board. “They stir it with a big kayak paddle. When we first started out we were making the hot chocolate in people’s kitchens.”

Money raised at the event — which is held regardless of the weather — now makes up about 25 percent of Safe Passage’s annual $1 million budget, said Executive Director Marianne Winters.

In an era of shrinking government funding, that provides needed stability for the agency, she said. Just as important, it is a source of unrestricted money “that lets us respond to our community’s needs,” she added.

A prime example is Safe Passage’s new public information campaign, “Say Something,” which staff members will be showcasing at Sunday’s Hot Chocolate Run. The idea behind the campaign is that everyone plays a role in preventing family violence, Winter said. “Regardless of your position in the community, there is something you can say that would make a difference, someone you can touch,” she added.

That ethic has long been part of the run itself, Winters said, noting that many racers wear badges listing the names of friends and family members they are honoring by participating.

“People come for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “It really speaks to community engagement in these issues, a sense that domestic violence affects everybody.”

As a clinical social worker, Northampton resident Randi Klein said she has seen the impact of domestic violence on the lives of her clients. She first got involved in the Hot Chocolate Run in 2006, when her family decided it would be a good way to celebrate her birthday. Klein has been participating ever since as a spectator and donor.

Her online fundraising page — an option Safe Passage offers to help expand donations — has raised $2,500 for the agency over the years, Klein said. This year’s total is $870, surpassing her goal of $500.

On Sunday, Klein’s husband, Scott Barton, and son, Jonah-Klein Barton — who is a senior at Northampton High School — will be running the race for the first time while she cheers them on.

“We love supporting this organization,” Klein said. “It’s fun to know you are doing something good but also coming together as a community.”

The most challenging part of this year’s race for syndicated cartoonist Hilary Price was finding a way to fit five polar bears and five penguins on a mug she designed for the 10th anniversary. As in each of the event’s nine previous years, Price’s collector’s mug will be given to all 5,500 participants in the Hot Chocolate Run.

“I wanted to find a way to mark this anniversary and to honor the walkers,” said Price, a Florence resident who has been involved since the first run in 2004. Her mug design shows a line of race mascot penguins and bears walking beneath an official race banner.

Some things about the Hot Chocolate Run have changed ­— participants now receive email reminders and can check their times online and the course has shifted somewhat to stay challenging, said Price who runs the race each year.

Still, it’s the event traditions she looks forward to most: The “sea of red hats,” representing participants who donated $100 and the sight of “just about everybody you know” at the starting line, Price said.

And, of course, hot chocolate — though for Price that is a secondary attraction.

“I love marshmallows more than is possible,” she explained. “For me, the hot chocolate is a vehicle for the marshmallows.”

Details about the event are available online at www.HotChocolateRun.com or by calling 586-1125. For information about Safe Passage, go to www.safepassage.org or call the agency’s hotline, 586-5066.