Two young runners give back in fundraiser for single parents

19-year-olds Jack Amos and Joe Robertson raise over $12,000 in a 500-kilometre run of Vancouver Island.

Jack Amos and Joe Robertson are just north of Nanaimo, B.C., over 100 kilometres from Victoria, their destination. It’s 8:00 a.m. on a dreary mid-November day. They’re roughly three-quarters of the way into their 500-kilometre run across Vancouver Island to raise money, awareness, and support for single-parent families looking to access food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but right now the 19-year-old friends are nestled inside Amos’ 1983 Dodge campervan, named Pippi.

Pippi, who used to be a shade of pale blue years ago, is now painted a heavy crimson. A long line of red and white reflective tape wraps around the length of the car. The roof is white and rusted from years of use. “FUNDRAISING SUPPORT VEHICLE” is written in large block letters on the side window.

Each day, Robertson’s alarm goes off at 8 a.m. sharp. At the beginning of their journey, he didn’t mind the alarm—but now, after 10 days of pounding over a hundred kilometres of highway pavement with Amos, he’s having problems with his Achilles tendon and could go without the ringing.

On their trip, Amos and Robertson have broken up the running into legs. The two will complete one run each, the first in the morning and the second in the afternoon. On this morning, it’s Robertson’s turn to run the first leg. He wakes up, meanders out of his sleeping bag, and is careful to avoid Amos and their documentarian, Rob Zastre, who’s still asleep in the body of the van.

Robertson grabs a banana and bowl of Vector cereal. The day before, he was using duct tape to help shift his knee into place. But after fueling up for the first run of the day, Robertson exits the van and breaks out into a jog without taping up. Amos drives about 14 kilometres down the road and parks Pippi.

It’s time to wait. If Roberston doesn’t show in about an hour and a half, Amos will drive back and look for him—but he shows on time and, five minutes later, Amos begins his leg while Robertson rests in the driver’s seat.

At the time of writing, it’s Day 10, and the duo hopes to finish in under two weeks. The plan is to end at “Mile 0,” the beginning of the Trans-Canada Highway and the place where Terry Fox planned to finish his Marathon of Hope in 1980.

As the number of single-parent families increases in Canada each year, the two young men are committed to finishing their fundraising journey, no matter the injuries or fatigue. Having grown up in single-parent families themselves, Robertson and Amos know some of the hardships their parents had to endure in their childhood and want to give back.

On their GoFundMe, the pair has already surpassed their $10,000 goal.

When Robertson is running on the side of the highway, digging deep and gritting his teeth, he thinks about the number of families he’ll be able to help with the money they’ve raised. That thought motivates him to duct tape his knee in place to run, brace the pain of Amos ripping off the bandage afterwards, and continue running the next day of their journey.

Since 2006, the number of single-parent families in Canada has been steadily rising. That year a survey recorded 1.47 million single-parent families in the country. In 2020, the number has grown to a reported 1.78 million.

Single-parent households are at a higher risk of financial difficulty, and a variety of other obstacles including loneliness and a lack of a support system. It can be difficult for one parent to raise a child alone and balance rent, grocery money, and their own job.

In separated families specifically, a child may also feel like they need to “pick sides.” Juggling custody time in a divorce can especially be a source of tension.

Last year, the BBC cited an American study that found children who grew up in a “fragile family,” a term they used to describe single-parent families, or parents who were cohabiting—living together but not officially married—were less likely to graduate from high school.

“Having two adults who cooperate to raise the child, who give time and money, means there are just more resources,” Sara McLanahan, a professor at Princeton University who oversaw the study, said in an interview with the BBC.

In the year since the study, the COVID-19 pandemic has added extra challenges for single parents.

Amid lockdown measures implemented in response to the virus, CNN reported in May that between paying bills and buying food, single parents have faced the additional challenge of adapting to their child’s virtual schooling. Also, in an American study published earlier this fall by the University of Minnesota, single mothers were shown to be disproportionally impacted financially by the pandemic. The study found 16 per cent of single mothers lost jobs they held in February, compared to just 6 per cent of single fathers.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Robertson was busy completing basic training to join the Canadian military. However, his training was shut down along with the rest of the country and he flew home to Victoria. Bored and not working, Robertson picked up a motivational book, Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins, that gave him the idea to test his mental and physical endurance. Goggins writes about battling depression and poverty in his childhood, before becoming a Navy SEAL and one of the world’s best endurance athletes.

“It gave me [the] motivation to bring on a challenge that was going to be extremely mentally and physically challenging,” Robertson said in a phone interview with The Pigeon.

“I looked at Vancouver Island and thought, ‘Huh. That might be fun to run down.’ The only person who I could think of who would want to do something like that would be Jack [Amos].”

The problem, however, was that Amos initially declined. While he was probably the perfect candidate for such a feat, at the time, he was recovering from a two-month solo hiking trip across Iceland at the time.

Robertson and Amos phoned The Pigeon together from inside Pippi on Day 10 of their journey.

As Robertson spoke over the phone, Amos jumped into the conversation.

“You called me a month after Iceland!” he interjected, driving home the point.

“I did call him a month after Iceland,” Robertson admitted with a laugh. “But I kept bugging him […] I was like ‘Hey man! Come on, let’s do this. It’ll be fun.’”

After convincing Amos, the two decided to dedicate the run to charity. Having grown up in single-parent families themselves, they started a GoFundMe with the hope of raising $10,000 for 1Up Victoria Single Parent Resource Centre.

Sarah Downey, the executive director of 1Up Victoria, was in disbelief when she found out the teenager’s plans.

“I said, ‘Really?’ And, ‘They’re how old?’” Downey remembered in an interview with The Pigeon. “It was hard for me to believe it, to be honest.”

Within their first four days of setting up the GoFundMe, Robertson and Amos raised over $8,000. Currently, the fundraiser has amassed over $12,675.

She says the money from their fundraising will make the organization more robust, and help build efforts such as their weekly food market—an initiative that offers basic lunch snacks to help single parents with their grocery bills and encourage healthy meals for their children.

As a single mom herself, Downey admits she felt a motherly instinct towards Amos and Robertson on their run—wishing they would make it down the island safely.

“I was invested in their journey, and [thought], ‘Are they okay out there? How’s the weather? Are they warm enough?’”

The money from the fundraiser is also coming at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has increased membership and usage at 1Up.

“It’s sad, there’s a lot of people who […] are separated and find themselves alone without financial backing,” Downey said.

“[We’ve had] 25 per cent new membership since COVID.”

Robertson’s parents divorced when he was two, and for the next eight years, his mother raised him and his two siblings alone before remarrying.

“I know she struggled a lot, and I just want to give back because there can be a lot of struggle as a single parent,” Robertson said. “As she raised us, she worked really, really hard.”

Earlier this year, The Tyee documented how single mothers and children have faced poverty-related issues at alarming rates in B.C. The article reported that 85 percent of low-income parents identified as female. While only 20 percent of B.C. children come from single-parent homes, The Tyee found that those youth made up over half of the children living in poverty in the province.

Five years ago, the B.C. government launched the Single Parent Employment Initiative, a plan to help single parents on income and disability assistance find long-term jobs through support services including training and monetary help for child care costs.

After speaking with anti-poverty organizations, including the Single Mothers’ Alliance BCThe Tyee recommended the provincial government implement more measures, like raising the minimum wage, providing single parents with more opportunities to receive grants or bursaries, and expanding the number of social and co-op housing units, to help address poverty issues facing single parents.

For Amos, seeing his mother struggle has made him a fierce advocate for single parents in the province. Shortly after Amos’ parents separated when he was 11, his father suffered a serious head injury which made it difficult for him to provide care for Amos and his sister—leaving his mother to take on most of the caregiving responsibilities alongside her own seven-day-a-week job.

“I’m just eternally grateful for her,” Amos said. “She’s a ridiculously hard worker and extremely selfless. [Robertson and I] want to give back to people who are in similar situations and give them a helping hand.”

Both Amos and Robertson say running and the outdoors have served as valuable outlets in their lives. Although Amos grew up in Yukon, and Robertson in Victoria, the two met at a high school cross-country meet in Nanaimo, B.C. in 2016.

“I was watching this race […] and I’m looking at the start line and there’s this one guy wearing a Yukon singlet and he has dreadlocks. I’m like, ‘This is the wackiest looking dude,’” Robertson recalled. “He comes around the field and the guy with the dreadlocks and the Yukon singlet is in the lead, and I say, ‘Who is this guy?’”

Amos—who won that race—moved to Victoria the next year, and the two bonded through a local running club, the Prairie Inn Harriers.

“Joe was the first person on the Harriers to talk to me,” Amos said. “I remember when he introduced himself to me, I could have sworn I knew him from somewhere. He looked so familiar, but we had never officially met before.”

Zastre (left), Robertson, and Amos (right) stand at the end of their 500-kilometre run. Photo by: Josh Kozelj

Roughly four years after that cross-country meet, on the fourth day of their 500-kilometre journey, Amos and Robertson were in a car accident.

Pippi, the ‘83 Dodge campervan—which got its nickname after Amos mistook his mother calling the vehicle a “hippy” van for a “pippy” van—remained relatively unscathed after being struck by a truck attempting to pass on a highway.

Despite the crash, injuries, and fatigue, the pair reached Victoria safely on a blustery, sun-soaked fall afternoon on Nov. 30. Media members, Downey, and Robertson’s mother, Susanne Ledingham, greeted Amos and Robertson with masks at a statue of Terry Fox at “Mile 0.”

Less than a week earlier, on day 10 of the run, Robertson told The Pigeon that despite the pain, both he and Amos had a lot of motivation to get down into Victoria.

“Even if I have to walk,” he said, “I’m still going to do it.”

Six days and over a hundred kilometres later, as the sun started to set on a November afternoon, Amos, Robertson, and Zastre, the cameraman who joined the adventure at the last minute and plans to turn their adventure into a short documentary, posed for a photo at the Terry Fox statue.

In it, Zastre leans with his pair of purple gloves on the statue’s plaque. Robertson and Amos—after running 500 kilometres on a highway, battling a nagging Achilles, knee, and other minor injuries—smile in their black running tights.

The words engraved on the plaque between the three young men are the beginning of a phrase Fox once wrote in a letter during his first battle with cancer: “Somewhere the hurting must stop…”

The rest of the message, not written on the plaque, says, “and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause.”

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