PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — “Having your first child is supposed to be filled with joy and fun,” says Paul Wilson, a sales associate with RE/MAX Unlimited in Ponte Vedra Beach.
It was anything but that for Paul and his wife, Amy. In 2008, their son Luke was born with spina bifida. He was immediately transported from Jacksonville Beach Medical Center to Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Within three days, he had two surgeries to correct his spine and put a shunt in his brain. “It was a frightening time for us,” says Wilson.
Now six years later, Luke is thriving and living a normal life. “He is amazing. In fact, he was in the YMCA swim league and was named the 6-and-under backstroke champion. He plays golf, it’s amazing,” says Wilson, who is also dad to Logan (3 years) and Levi (2 years).
During the three weeks Luke spent in the hospital, the one thing that kept Wilson sane was running through downtown Jacksonville with a surgeon friend who worked at the hospital. During those runs, he thought of ways to give back to the doctors and nurses who helped him and his family through this crisis.
Wilson says he felt he had to find a way to show his appreciation for the life-saving interventions that his son received at Wolfson and help other families. “I thought it would be fun to run the age of the hospital, which I thought was 30 years old. I’m an endurance runner and thought I could reach out to that community to help,” he says. However, he soon found out that the hospital was actually turning 55 years old. “So, we turned it into an ultra marathon,” laughs Wilson.
Thus, the Wolfson’s Children’s Challenge was born. The first year, about 10 runners ran the 55-mile race, but about 1,000 ran a companion 5-mile race. In total, that inaugural event raised $500,000 in one year through sponsorships and private donations.
In 2014, the race attracted 100 relay teams, more than 20 ultra marathon runners and countless others who participated in the shorter run. “The race is now 55 kilometers. We wanted to make it a little more sane to run, and it’s easier for the relay teams to have each person run a 5K,” he says. Each year, the event pays tribute to 55 children who have been helped by Wolfson.
The Challenge has grown dramatically since it started in 2009. According to Wilson, the sixth annual run is expected to draw more than 3,000 participants when it takes place Jan. 31, 2015. To accommodate such a large group, the host venue for the run is being moved to Everbank Field, home of the National Football League’s (NFL) Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the past five years, the Challenge has raised more than $2 million.
“The money doesn’t just go to the hospital,” Wilson explains. “We use it to purchase capital equipment. Our first purchase was a 3 Tesla MRI machine, which uses innovative technology to allow doctors to make earlier diagnoses of diseases and prevent some surgeries.
“Recently a mother reached out to me. Her daughter was having health issues – and because of this machine, doctors were able to diagnose her with a neurological disorder. Since it was caught so early, they say she will have a positive outcome.”
Wilson is already planning his next capital equipment purchase – a nuclear gamma X-ray camera.
“By providing the best equipment, Wolfson can attract the best doctors and surgeons,” he says. “My goal is for this to be the No. 1 children’s hospital in Florida. I will keep fighting until that happens.”
Wilson shares the perspective he’s gained over the years. “I’ve been an agent since 2000,” he says. “Luke was born at the same time as when the bottom fell out for all of us in the real estate industry. I had customers who had purchased homes from me only to lose them during the market downturn. My experience has helped me feel the pain of my customers. There are challenges in life, and I’m better able to deal with them now.”
Even more than that, Wilson adds, he’s realized how important it is to find God’s passion for you. “Everyone has something tugging on his or her heart,” he says. “You just have to take action. That’s all I did. I felt passionate about something and took action.”
Paul Wilson was named a 2014 Good Neighbor by the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) for his work with Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Read more about it here: http://realtormag.realtor.org/good-neighbor-awards/winner/2014/09/paul-wilson