Clearing a Path for Health Equity: A Q&A with Fast Feet NYC

A conversation with

Suzie Clinchy

Founder & Executive
Director, Fast Feet NYC

Melanie Schnoll Begun

Head, Field Engagement, Morgan
Stanley Family Office Resources

A passion for running inspired Suzie Clinchy to take a big leap. In 2014, she left behind a career in the corporate world here at Morgan Stanley, ultimately launching Fast Feet NYC to promote equality in physical activity, nutrition and social development for children of all abilities.

That mission resonated deeply with Morgan Stanley’s own Melanie Schnoll Begun. The self-proclaimed Type 1 Diabetes “diva” has participated in over 39 marathons, 20 triathlons and countless half-marathons and credits running for influencing every aspect of her life from family to philanthropy to the workplace.

These like-minded athletes and activists sat down for a conversation that you will want to keep pace with on the importance of health equity, self-care and philanthropy.

Melanie Schnoll Begun: What made you take the leap from the corporate world to founding a non-profit?

Suzie Clinchy: After I left the corporate world in 2014, I joined the NYC Teaching Fellows program and spent a few years teaching public school mathematics in middle and high schools in Brooklyn, while pursuing my Master’s Degree in Adolescent Education of Mathematics. During that time, I partnered with my coworker, an English teacher, to form an after school running club, which we also coached. After a few years, I was introduced to a school for children with autism and had the opportunity to start a twice weekly running club alongside the adaptive PE teacher and OT/PT department. I absolutely fell in love with working with these students and watching their resulting physical development and social progress. Taking our team of runners to a track meet on Randall’s Island solidified my vision for Fast Feet and catalyzed my desire to start my own organization. Our runners competed in the 400-meter dash, finishing their one lap race to a standing ovation from the crowd. That track meet was a pivotal moment for me, and I was inspired to provide inclusive athletic opportunities for children with developmental and physical disabilities. I launched Fast Feet just a few months later and that same English teacher from my first running club is now our Director of Development!

Melanie: What is health equity and why are you so passionate about it?

Suzie: Health equity is when everyone has access to the goods, services, and resources they need for optimal health and well-being. I believe having access to healthcare, along with the tools to live a happy and healthy lifestyle is a basic human right. Learning to enjoy moving your body, self-identifying as an athlete, making friends through sports, and witnessing self-improvement in strength and endurance are aspects that we work to cultivate through our school-, hospital-, and community-based running and health programs. We’re lucky enough to partner with public schools, private schools, charter schools, hospitals, and communities in New York City, LA, Detroit, Boston, and Albany. That creates interconnectivity between the school system, the healthcare system, and our communities.

There are very few athletic and fitness programs designed to support individuals with disabilities. We want to help close the gap. Fast Feet offers inclusive programs to support children of all abilities to participate in a team sport, engage in a lifelong fitness skill, develop socially, and internalize healthy habits.

Melanie: How do you tailor your platform to meet the needs of people with all abilities?

Suzie: Our curriculum was designed by a team of special education teachers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, professional and elite runners, and an Olympic running coach. We strive to do everything we can to best support our athletes, which can take form in a variety of ways.

We consult with physical therapists, nurse practitioners, and occupational therapists to develop exercise modifications that encourage independence on the track for our athletes with physical disabilities and movement limitations. Our occupational therapists help our athletes work on developing healthy movement patterns. We’ve brought in American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters to support youth runners who are deaf. We work to recruit volunteers to provide 1:1 support to help our runners develop social skills during practice sessions. We bring in local high school students to run with our athletes and engage in positive peer interactions.

Our coaches are primarily special education teachers or occupational therapists who live and/or work in the communities in which they coach. They have deep and primary knowledge of how to best support, communicate with, and teach our athletes how to develop a love for running, participate in a team sport, and engage positively with teammates. Our coaches make our programs great and are incredible individuals!

Melanie: What role has running played in your own life and what are the biggest lessons/benefits it has given you (health, goal-setting, etc.)?

Suzie: I started running in high school and fell in love with pushing myself physically and mentally, training hard with teammates, and competing at a high level against incredible female athletes. I feel lucky to have found a form of exercise that I simply have a lot of fun doing!

Running taught me delayed gratification, the importance of putting in daily work to achieve a large scale goal, and the benefits of positive self-talk. Running provides me with routine, helps me sleep really well each night, allows me to explore new trails in nature or cities on foot, and improves my nutrition tenfold!

While running gave me so many things, I have also sustained a number of injuries that probably taught me more important lessons. I learned to never give up, the art of starting over, having self-belief, and breaking down a large goal [i.e. regaining fitness] into smaller, bite-size pieces. Getting multiple injuries also taught me to always prioritize health and happiness.

Melanie: Fast Feet was formed shortly before the pandemic - how has the rise of connecting virtually served to expand your mission? And, now that we are able to be together again, will you continue to leverage a virtual platform to grow your organization?

Suzie: During the pandemic, in 2020, we received funding to offer virtual classes, which included virtual fitness classes, yoga classes, cooking classes, and social skills groups. Zoom allowed us to continue to serve our families while staying true to our mission and providing connection and community during a particularly isolating time. After in-person programming resumed and we were able to get back into schools and outside on the track, we kept up with a few select classes that really resonated with our families. Our weekly virtual classes provide a totally free and accessible platform for all to participate in fun, virtual community programming. Virtual classes are great, as they remove barriers associated with transportation.

Melanie: What were the biggest challenges in launching a nonprofit?

Suzie: When I was first thinking about starting a nonprofit, a few folks told me that launching a nonprofit was too complicated, too much work, too complex, and to not even bother if you couldn’t pay a lawyer to register your organization with the IRS and NY State. Despite these challenges, with research and helpful mentors, it is totally possible to start a nonprofit.

If you cannot afford a lawyer or accountant at the beginning of your nonprofit journey, it’s really important to both understand the steps to register your corporation with the state and apply for 501c3 status with the IRS. Drafting your application documents can be tedious and time consuming, but the NY State website has a terrific step-by-step guide for nonprofit founders, and the time spent ruminating on your mission and vision is extremely valuable for finetuning your “why” and “how.”

An additional step that can be daunting is building out your Board of Directors. Finding individuals whom you trust, share your vision, and have tangible skills to help support your growing organization - while volunteering their time on the Board - is an ongoing process as the nonprofit expands and the Board develops.

Finally, creating a sustainable business model for your nonprofit is vital for the health of the organization. Developing multiple revenue streams, getting creative with fundraising, and not relying on a singular grant, government funding, or gala can ensure that your organization can thrive in a variety of economic markets - and even through a global pandemic!

Melanie: Oftentimes, prioritizing self-care including health and athleticism can be a challenge. Please share how you manage to carve out time for yourself while running an organization and attending to the other aspects of life.

Suzie: I think, at least in my experience, that participating in sports through high school and college ensures that movement and exercise are ingrained within your daily routine. My family is very active and health conscious, so I grew up with great role models for how to easily incorporate movement and healthy habits into daily routines. I definitely make sure to get most of my running or gym time completed in the morning, before meetings and programming get rolling. Running 10 miles or doing a track workout in the morning with friends provides me with a feeling of accomplishment by 9AM. I also feel calmer and have a better headspace to tackle whatever challenges the day may bring. While working in corporate finance early in my career, I noticed that many C-suite executives would schedule a morning workout or lunchtime gym session into their calendar and respect it as an equally important time block - that always stuck with me. I think taking daily time to do something positive for yourself helps to avoid career burnout.

Melanie: What's your advice to others seeking to find ways of incorporating a culture of volunteerism and philanthropy in their own lives?

Suzie: I think it’s important to mull over what inspires you to seek volunteerism, in what capacity you would like to donate your time, and what time commitment or resources you are able to give. There are so many important causes to support, it can feel overwhelming. Can you volunteer on an annual, quarterly, monthly, or weekly basis? Do you prefer to volunteer in-person or on a remote basis?

While in-person volunteering is a great way to support an organization, and we rely heavily on our in-person volunteers to boost our programming, you can also volunteer through pro-bono professional services. Graphic design, law, accounting, business development consulting, marketing, and social media are all really great ways to volunteer and support a growing nonprofit organization who may not have the resources to do these things in house. Another fantastic way to make an impact is by joining a committee - a fundraising committee, junior board, or even a senior board, can make an immediate and positive impact on a nonprofit.

Volunteering or being in service to others can add tremendous value to your day-to-day life. Many of our volunteers claim their weekly Fast Feet practice is their favorite part of their week and it’s been wonderful to watch our volunteer community grow and thrive over the past few years.

Melanie: You were a high school All-American track runner, competed as a D1 athlete in cross country and track for Wake Forest and are a local elite runner in NYC. So, what’s next for you? Any bigger running challenges? Any other sports you want to dominate?

Suzie: I am hesitantly dipping my toes into marathon training, aiming to complete my first marathon later in 2022! On the other end of the spectrum, I really want to improve my surfing, pick up a winter sport, and spend more time hiking, swimming, and playing tennis.


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