It's nearly impossible to say no to Diane Daruty. That, it turns out, is a very good thing.
Daruty, a Newport Beach mom who has worked as a lawyer and certified public accountant, pretty much single-handedly rescued the Spirit Run from certain death. What's more, she reworked the annual school fundraiser into a bigger, more ambitious event, and she has lots of ideas and plans for more expansion and improvement.
I know about Daruty's tenacity from first-hand experience. After last year's Spirit Run, she contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in writing about the resurrection and reimagining of the race. Sure, I replied, but maybe later.
Some months went by, and I heard from her again: Now? Again I told her: Not yet.
But in the past few weeks, I've noticed a slew of e-mails, posters and mailers about the upcoming Spirit Run set for March 3 in Newport Center, and I figured it was about time to keep my promise. Daruty graciously made time to talk to me despite her frenetic schedule in the weeks leading up to the race.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Spirit Run, and it's no exaggeration to state that it wouldn't be happening if not for Daruty's dogged persistence.
"I'm a running maniac, and I love the event," she said. "It's a tremendous opportunity, in a healthy way, to make tons of money for the schools. There's no other event like this for the kids."
The Spirit Run was originally envisioned as a way to raise money for the Newport-Mesa elementary schools in the Corona del Mar zone — first Lincoln, Harbor View and Anderson, then also Eastbluff and Newport Coast elementary schools after they opened. It featured age-based races, music and other activities.
But by 2010, there were rumblings of discontent among participating parent-teacher associations. Although each had long encouraged students, families and others in the community to sign up for the race and received a share of the proceeds in return, many saw the event as a whole lot of work for a limited return.
What's more, some PTA members seemed more interested in investing their time and resources into their own fundraisers, such as jog-a-thons, that were viewed as competition for the Spirit Run. Without the support of individual schools, the event would be history.
"I was literally crying," when it appeared the race would end, said Daruty, who had been a Spirit Run volunteer since 2006.
So she set on a course to save the race. She formed a nonprofit, assembled a board, and as president of the new organization, won support directly from district officials, school principals and sponsors. (The Daily Pilot is a Spirit Run sponsor.)
Daruty also made a key decision: The basic structure of the race would remain and, as before, the money raised would be divided among participating schools. But if the Spirit Run was worth saving, she figured, it needed to go big. Instead of involving just five schools, she was intent on bringing in all Newport-Mesa schools as partners.
In 2011, the first year of the new organizational structure, the Spirit Run earned $50,000, with nine schools participating. Last year, 15 Newport-Mesa schools signed on, and the event netted $55,000.
"When we gave a check to one principal, she cried," Daruty said, because the money saved the art program at the school for two years.
This year, although sponsorships are down a bit and expenses are up slightly, a total of 21 schools are now on board and Daruty is hopeful.
"I'd like to see this make $100,000," she said. "People just need to show up."
Meanwhile, Daruty keeps thinking up ways to make the event better. The race now has a Toddler Trot, a family sponsorship program, scholarships for disadvantaged students, and bus transportation to the Fashion Island location. Fitness training has been underway at a few schools, and will expand to others.
Daruty even managed to get the Spirit Run selected for inclusion in the U.S.A. Track and Field Grand Prix Road Running Championship Series, a stamp of approval for serious competitive runners. "I hounded them" to earn the designation, she said.
A mother of two — Daruty's son is a sophomore at Corona del Mar High School, and her daughter is a sixth-grader at Eastbluff — she admits to a degree of obsession with keeping the race alive and thriving. Now that strong internal controls are in place and so many schools have committed, she envisions a time when she can step back and hand the reins to others.
"It would be nice to not work so much on it," she said. "I feel a responsibility. How can I let this go?"
Lucky for us she didn't let it go. Thanks to Daruty's conviction and determination, a worthwhile community event and school fundraising vehicle was rescued from oblivion and is helping schools at a time when every extra dollar is sorely needed. Some might call it stubbornness, but in this case, not taking no for an answer turned out to be a very good thing indeed.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.