Ainsley’s Angels program to play big part in Louisiana Marathon once again _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Kevin Dufrene and Maj. Kim Rossiter push Amanda Turner, of Lake Charles, across the finish line during the Louisiana Half-Marathon on Sunday in Baton Rouge. The team is part of the Ainsley's Angels programs which provides ride-alongs for disabled children and adults in athletic events who would otherwise not be able to compete.

He watches NFL Network almost daily, but Harrison Veuleman switched to “SpongeBob SquarePants” for a second on Wednesday.

“If you engage him in conversation,” his mother Amy said, “you better know the latest playoff seedings.”

The 17-year-old St. Louis Catholic School junior is obsessed with football. He has his own St. Louis football jersey, though he’s not actually on the team. His cerebral palsy and constant knee surgeries — three in the last two years and 12 total that Amy can recall — prevent that.

Harrison took his first steps in two years on Tuesday. The football coaching staff lined the halls of the high school to applaud and encourage him as he triumphantly wheeled his walker into the hall.

“They know that he relates to football so much,” Amy said.

“You gotta rehab that knee. You have to get back walking again,” the coaches often tell him. “You have to work hard like football players do.”

“He wanted to show them he could do it,” Amy adds.

Harrison’s favorite teams are the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, and he already predicts those two will face off in the Super Bowl, though he hates to admit Tom Brady and the New England Patriots may sneak in.

Much to Harrison’s dismay, Kim “Rooster” Rossiter’s favorite team is the Dallas Cowboys. When the two are together, the NFL conversations don’t stop. Rossiter expects much of the same on Jan. 18 when the duo is two of about 20 to 25 Ainsley’s Angels participants in the Louisiana Marathon running festival.

Rossiter founded Ainsley’s Angels in 2011 for his daughter, Ainsley, who suffers from Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy. Ainsley was pushed in her first road race in 2007, and the smile that radiated from her face provided a relaxing, therapeutic fight for the whole family against a disease of which there is less than 10 total early onset cases in the U.S.

Rossiter’s organization unites able-bodied family members or volunteers, whom they call “angels,” to push disabled athletes, called “captains,” in marathons and road races.

Now with more than 1,000 participants three years after its inception, Ainsley’s Angels has expanded quicker than even Rossiter thought possible. An active duty Marine, Rossiter uses his lunch breaks to make conference calls, give interviews and coordinate Ainsley’s Angels ventures.

“It has grown in such a way that I never envisioned, being this big this fast, to where you almost need a compensated staff to run it,” Rossiter said. “We’re 100 percent volunteer. No paycheck, no payroll. I’ve come to realize I’ve had to get educated on that process, because that’s what it’s going to have to take to sustain. Very exciting times.”

Ainsley’s Angels has spurred the creation of 14 chapters around the country, each a 501c3 public charity, and a children’s book, “Born an Angel,” written by Ainsley’s 13-year-old sister Briley.

Amy learned of the organization through a co-worker at McNeese State University, where she is a communications professor. She signed Harrison up, and the family celebrated his 16th birthday at his first race. He and Rossiter will run the half-marathon Jan. 18, though Harrison has already conquered a full marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.

Not much of a runner, Amy initially fell into a common misconception of Ainsley’s Angels participants — she would have to push Harrison in races.

Instead, the organization accepts volunteers to become “angels,” and after background checks and proper training, those able-bodied volunteers are paired with a new friend.

“They were strangers yesterday, but friends for life tomorrow,” Rossiter said.

Overcoming her initial trepidation, Amy marveled at the organization’s impact on Harrison and his 12-year-old brother, Nicholas, who, along with his mother have taken up running in hopes of pushing Harrison in future races.

“It really is a sense of family,” Amy said. “It’s important to have people that can empathize with you and it’s important for him to have social outlets. I enjoy seeing him just smile, being happy and competing.”

Harrison said he enjoys the music. In all of his races, his “angels” have prepared a playlist of pump-up music that he often sings along with and dances to throughout the race.

Then there’s also football.

He’s only seen Tiger Stadium from afar on bridges, so Amy has promised Harrison an up-close look. Harrison’s also hoping LSU coach Les Miles and a few players can make it to the race, where he’s got a surprise in store for all.

Rossiter and Harrison have been concocting a plan for Harrison to get out of the racing chair and cross the finish line under his own power. Of course, it pends the approval of therapists and doctors, but Harrison’s progress Tuesday has everyone optimistic.

“He wants to be free from the wheelchair,” Amy said. “Very determined to just be rid of anything that reminds him of any of the surgeries.”

Once fearful of the three-to-six hour races and how they would impact his legs, Amy now meets Harrison at most stops during the races.

What she sees erases any apprehension.

“He was as happy as could be at every stop,” Amy said. “It’s never hurt him, it’s never been a problem as far as the endurance. He’s loved it every mile.”