When Sam Felsenfeld broke his neck at the age of 16 in a swimming pool accident, it was fate that allowed him to regain the use of his legs.
“I’d always been grateful that my legs were spared. Because there’s a reason for that. I should’ve been paralyzed,” said Felsenfeld, a 1998 K-State graduate. Fifteen years later, on Nov. 7, 2006, on what Felsenfeld calls “a birthday for his legs,” his 4-year-old son Jack was diagnosed with autism.
Felsenfeld decided to take his new hobby for running marathons and turn it into a fundraiser for autism awareness. His efforts, a program named Operation Jack, is his mission to run at least one marathon per week, totaling 60 in a single year.
“I wanted to think about a reason for that,” Felsenfeld said in reference to having full use of his legs despite breaking his neck. “I brainstormed for close to eight months before I found out what I was going to do. It took awhile, but I wanted to combine my running with Jack’s autism.” In February 2009, Felsenfeld said he decided to create Operation Jack but was unsure how to get it started.
Train 4 Autism, a program that allows athletes to compete their way to raising funds for those with autism and their families, was Felsenfeld’s answer. The company helps athletes get through races and gives them a fundraising page, he said.
“Starting a charity isn’t what I want to do. They had the foundation built and they needed help building a skyscraper,” said Felsenfeld. “I didn’t want to build the foundation — I wanted to build the sky scraper. We were made for each other.”
Felsenfeld, after talking with his wife Tiffany, launched Operation Jack, starting its Web site July 1, 2009, where marathon dates and times are posted. The site also offers a spot for donations, T-shirts and sweatshirts for sale and a program called 10X10, where a participant gets 10 people to donate $10 to the charity.
Operation Jack allows Felsenfeld, along with other runners who volunteer, to receive donations for each marathon, half marathon or shorter that they compete in. For every $100 raised 9 percent is given to Train 4 Autism to help with company expenses, 6 percent is given to Kintera, a company that handles the fundraising site and credit card fees, etc., and 85 percent goes to any non-profit autism-related charity of the participant’s choice. Charities can range from programs that take autistic children surfing to those building long-term housing for autistic adults, said Ben Fesagaiga, founder of Train 4 Autism.
Because Operation Jack is its own nonprofit organization, after paying for traveling expenses, the charity will donate all of his profits to Train 4 Autism, said Fesagaiga. Since it was founded in 2007, Train 4 Autism has raised over $70,000, benefiting over 20 charities, Fesagaiga said.
“We’ve been working with Sam and we’re excited about everything he’s been doing,” Fesagaiga said. “I strongly believe that if we didn’t exist he would’ve created something similar to us.”
Although he runs on a daily basis now, Felsenfeld said he didn’t start running until about six years ago. After years of an unhealthy lifestyle, Sam realized it was causing him health problems and began exercising.
“I was never athletic; I cheated on the mile in high school – running was punishment,” Sam said. “I gained weight, smoked a lot and drank a lot in college. And I was having health problems because I never took care of myself.”
Sam said he started walking regularly at the age of 30, and walking turned into running. “It took me nearly two decades, but I finally realized I have a gift that can help other people.”
Since New Year’s Day, Sam has ran 15 races, some of which are a day apart.
“I wanted to make something happen. It’s exhausting, it runs me into the ground — but I’m reaching people,” Sam said. “I just want to do something bigger than myself, better than myself, not about myself.”
Sam will return to Kansas April 10 to run his 17th marathon in Operation Jack and the following day, he will compete in Dallas.
“I’m able to run marathons and recover quickly, it’s not a big deal. Everyone has something they’re good at,” Sam said. “I’m just taking advantage of something I have the ability to do.”
Tiffany said the effects of Operation Jack on others is important to both her and Sam.
“A lot of people ask me if he’s going to do all the marathons and my answer is ‘I know that he’ll do this,'” Tiffany said. “I know he’ll do this because his heart is in it. There’s been some tough weekends, but we want to make Jack to make an impact on the world. Hopefully we can make something happen out of this.”
Sam and Tiffany said they knew Jack was well behind from a young age. When he was a year and a half Jack tested 6 – 9 months old max in some areas, and 3 months in other areas, and was not talking, Sam said. After a recommendation from their pediatrician, they said they decided to take Jack to speech therapy.
“Our oldest son was late talking and was in speech therapy for eight months. We thought ‘been there done that’ – thought jack would be in and out,” Sam said. “The more time went on we realized we had a real problem.”
Between special education first grade, therapy and occupational therapy, Jack’s life is kept busy six to seven days and 50 hours a week, Tiffany said.
“On Wednesdays he goes to gymnastics. I call that his happy hour for the week, he just gets to go and have fun and not follow such a tight schedule,” Tiffany said.
As for Operation Jack, Sam said it is his goal for Jack’s life to reach people, whether or not he understands the significance.
“It was only in the last year or so we actually realized he knew who we were,” Sam said. “He has no idea I even run, no idea he has 1,300 fans on Facebook, no clue people wear shirts with his name on it. He’ll never have any idea what I’ve done or what his role is in all of this. That kind of makes it cool in a way.”
Operation Jack will reach its 60th marathon Dec. 27, marking over 1,500 miles Sam will have run competitively in the program.
“There’s no logical reason for me to run the way I do. I’m the slow, fat, un-athletic, drunk-on-the-weekend, pack-a-day-for-four-years guy who broke his neck and should be a quadriplegic,” Sam said. “That’s why I know it’s a gift. My legs were spared for a purpose, Jack suffers for a purpose and [this] year we’ll find out if that purpose is Operation Jack.”
To donate, compete or find more information, go to operationjack.com or train4autism.org.