Racing for Children’s Lives

Wolfson Children's Challenge

Two real estate professionals. Two loving fathers. Two incredible journeys for a cause. 

Many years ago, Mark Meinhardt and Paul Wilson each faced all parents’ worst fears—a gravely ill child.  Meinhardt’s daughter, Sophie, died suddenly at 18 months from a brain tumor. Wilson’s son, Luke, was born with spina bifida and required two surgeries before they could take him home. (He survived and thrives today as a 15-year-old.) 

Both men can look back and say they turned trauma into triumph. Meinhardt, AHWD, senior vice president of Sibcy Cline, REALTORS®, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wilson, a salesperson with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, Ponte Vedra, Fla., used their situations as a catalyst to raise money for the hospitals that helped their families. For the annual running events they founded, both men were National Association of REALTORS® Good Neighbor Award honorees, Meinhardt in 2011 and Wilson in 2014. 

Wilson and Meinhardt continue their efforts today. They’ve each expanded and changed their fundraisers to ensure sure top-notch equipment and up-to-date research continue to be available for the youngest victims of life-threatening illnesses. 

Here are their stories and successes.

A Hospital to the Rescue

Fifteen-year-old Luke Wilson drives the family’s golf cart to get to his job as a dishwasher at a large assisted-living facility in Nocatee, Fla., and plays in a basketball league.  

“He’s like every other ‘normal’ teen,” his dad says. 
But when Luke was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that leaves parts of the spine exposed, Wilson and his wife didn’t know if their son would survive. The Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., became the savior for the family and their baby. He underwent two surgeries including one for fluid developing around his brain.  

The fears and unknowns of whether their firstborn would survive those days in the hospital were overwhelming. “It’s your first child, and you’re expecting it to be a wonderful experience—and it was tragic right away,” Wilson says.  

During the three weeks Luke was in the hospital, Wilson—an avid long-distance runner—would relieve stress by running around the hospital.  

Those runs sparked an idea. To honor the hospital’s 55th anniversary in 2009. He founded the annual Wolfson Children’s Challenge, 55-mile and 55-kilometer runs and relay events and to honor 55 children with 55 ailments.  

The very first year, the run drew about 150 runners and about 250 people. Wilson thought they’d raise $5,000, but “a lot of people came on board,” including many from his real estate company and other area agents. The challenge brought in $500,000.  

Over the past 15 years, the event has raised more than $4 million, used to buy equipment and create a special room for parents to be with their children during treatments. More than 3,000 people came out for the 2024 event. The 1,800 runners included relay teams, solo runners, and the kids’ 1-mile run.  

More Than a Run, an Event

Over time, the event got so big that it was moved to EverBank Stadium, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars football team. But because of downtown developments, it had to be moved last year to Nocatee Station Field, in Wilson’s community, about 35 minutes south of the city.  

“The event is more than just a run. It’s a celebration for the children and the hospital. It is definitely a party atmosphere with food, games for the kids, face painting, Star Wars characters walking around, and different types of entertainment,” Wilson says.  

As REALTOR®, a member of the Northeast Florida Association of REALTORS®, Wilson is grateful for fellow members who continue to help him with anything he needs from setting up tents to working on the kids’ events during the challenge. While volunteering at a local television station’s telethon, which happens each year two weeks before Wilson’s running event, many members contact their spheres of influence. Last year, they raised $85,000.  

Working in real estate is parallel to being a volunteer leader, Wilson says. “It’s spot on. Every day there is a challenge you are going through, hurdles to get through.”  

His Good Neighbor Award has solidified the legitimacy of his efforts, he says, encouraging other community members to get involved. 

“This year, during the 15th anniversary, I turned 55. I decided to run the 55-mile distance solo,” Wilson adds. He began at 11 p.m. the night before and ran all through the night while Luke rode a bike beside him. “My head was pounding from lack of sleep, but it was mind over matter.”  

It took him about 13 hours to complete the run.  

All proceeds from this year’s event and the telethon benefit Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation. 

Losing His Baby Girl

For Meinhardt, 2006 is a year he will never forget.  

His family was en route to South Carolina to join his siblings and their families for a week of fun. But during the car ride, Sophie, the youngest of the Meinhardts’ four daughters, became ill. The family went from urgent care facilities to a pediatrician and then to the hospital as she got weaker day after day.  Eventually, Sophie was airlifted back home to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC). The diagnosis: a brain tumor. Meinhardt later learned that the tumor was probably only 30 days old—and it was a death sentence. 

“Sophie didn’t make it out of surgery. The tumor intertwined her brain, and she bled out. The surgeons were crying,” Meinhardt says.  

“There was always a ruckus when Sophie as around,” he adds. “She was living life to the fullest as long as she could.” 

A small banner showing a picture of Sophie is held up by surrounding family and friends.

A Community Pulls Together

Through their tragic experience, the Meinhardts learned that pediatric cancers and tumors were underfunded.  

“We came up with the motto, ‘Become better, not bitter,’” he says. “We wanted to raise some money for pediatric brain research.” 

Meinhardt is a runner and his two oldest daughters participated in cross country. So they organized a 5K, Sophie’s Angel Run, in conjunction with their church’s Octoberfest.  

They thought maybe they’d get 300 walkers and runners. “We did it at 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and had 1,200 people. It was crazy, and we netted $48,000. We thought one and done,” he says. 

But the community wanted Sophie’s Angel Run to continue, so it did. The runs have helped the Meinhardts and their community grieve and, since the first race in 2007, raised more than $1.2 million. The money has gone toward raising awareness for pediatric brain tumors, raising money for brain tumor research at CCHMC, and giving scholarships to local Catholic schools.  

A Higher Profile

Before Meinhardt was recognized as a Good Neighbor Award honoree in 2011, many of his fellow members of the REALTOR® Alliance of Cincinnati and neighboring local associations were unaware of the award program, he says. He pushed to start local Good Neighbor Award programs.  

“People found out about it, and there became a bigger awareness of some of the good things NAR does,” he says. “[The award] gives us credibility when we go to get sponsorships for Sophie’s Run. It shows we are good stewards with any donations or sponsorships.” 

Recently, Sophie’s Angel Run partnered with The Cure Starts Now Foundation, which is dedicated to eliminating cancer, and the name of the race changed to Angel Run. All proceeds from last year’s run benefitted The Cure Starts Now to fund pediatric brain cancer research in honor of Sophie. 

“Through research, they are starting to figure out how certain tumors are related to each other and finding genes,” says Meinhardt, who serves on the foundation’s advisory board. “It’s been 17 years since we started raising money, and there is progress.” 

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