Teresa Robinson's NH Runner: A story about friends, running and hiking
Janelle is one of those people.
I met Janelle, now 10, last year when I coached her Girls On The Run team. She was somewhat shy, certainly quiet, but I could tell right away that there was something special about her.
We connected almost immediately, bonded by the fact that we were both "outsiders" on the team that practiced twice a week after school at Green Acres School. Janelle, who goes to Northwest Elementary, was the only student on the team who didn't attend the school. The other coach of the team was a teacher at Green Acres, so Janelle and I usually arrived at the school around the same time.
Unlike the other girls on the team who saw each other every day, we had to give extra effort to learn our teammates' names. We had to ask where the bathroom was. We had to carry our school and work bags and running gear to every practice.
As I went through the team roster leading up to the first practice, I noticed a familiar name next to Janelle's in the parent/guardian column: Dan Szczesny.
I recognized his name as someone who works as another local paper, but more personally I recognized him as the husband of Meena Gyawali, with whom my professional path had crossed a few times during her time working for the City of Manchester. In a strange twist, it turns out that Gyawali and I also graduated from the same (very large) class at the University of Illinois.
I don't recall who reached out to whom first, but Szczesny and I connected by email before the first Girls On The Run practice, where he filled me in a little on Janelle and their relationship.
Janelle and her twin brother, Aaron, are neighbors with Szczesny and Gyawali. They were living with their grandparents, and when their grandfather died in 2011, the children adopted the couple. That's the way Szczesny likes to describe it.
The couple had little experience with children and wasn't quite sure what do to with them. So they just took them along on activities that they like to do - like hiking.
Their first hike was a small peak near Cannon Mountain called Bald Peak. Janelle was hooked. She asked Szczesny if they could do more hikes. He agreed, but told her "we'd have to coordinate with my wife and the rest of the kids," he recalls.
"Looking back on that day, I still remember very clearly how she responded," Szczesny recalled. "She said, 'That's ok, you can just take me.' I should have known then there was something special happening."
Since that first climb Szczesny and Janelle have become avid hikers. I've followed their progress through photos and blog posts, and was excited when I learned of their challenge, initiated by Janelle, to take on "52 with a View" - a list of mountains under 4,000-feet, but with great views.
The duo has climbed through snowstorms, heat waves and rain. At the summit of each mountain, Szczesny snaps a photo of Janelle, her arms raised high or giving a thumbs-up sign. In each, her pride and strength is visible in her little smile. In a little more than a year, they had checked all 52 off the list. In all, they hiked 225 miles in 371 days.
Their story is inspiring. It's not just a story about hiking. It's a story about a bond between two unlikely friends.
"Describing our relationship is difficult to put into words," Szczesny said. "We're friends of course, but mentors as well, teachers. On the trail, having to look out for each other and spending so much time together working toward a challenging goal, we developed a special trust which I suspect is rare between an adult and a child, especially as we're not related.
Janelle and Szczesny are sharing their story and adventures in a book, "The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie." They will preview their book, scheduled to be released in May, an event on Wednesday, March 6 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Girls Inc. at the Green Street Community Center in Concord. Admission is free. The event will include photos and question-and-answer session.
I've run into Janelle a few times at races, and I'm always impressed by her strength and determination. She is, like the book title says, one Tough Cookie. Maybe one day she will turn the tables and help coach me up some of her favorite mountains.
Teresa Robinson's NH Runner column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. She can be reached at NHRunner123@gmail.com. Twitter: @teresakrobinson