First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - Maria Parker had a simple solution to improving Robeson County's collective health: Running.
With that in mind, Parker provided the inspiration and much of the legwork for the Rumba on the Lumber and Chevy to the Levee 5K races and continues to visit schools to encourage children to exercise regularly.
That commitment has earned her a semi-finalist spot in the HALLS Heroes contest. She is competing against 19 others to become one of 10 who will earn $10,000 prizes. Each winner receives $5,000 to keep, and $5,000 for the charity of that person's choice.
But Parker needs help. Visitors to the cough drop company's Web site, www.hallsheroes.com, are invited to vote for the finalists they believe have the most compelling stories. A person can vote once a day until Aug. 7.
Parker said that if she wins, she'll donate all the money to charity - $5,000 to the Robeson County Church and Community Center and $5,000 to the Robeson Road Runners.
A self-effacing Parker said she was honored to be selected, but said there were dozens of county volunteers who deserved the award as much as - if not more - than she did.
“I'm just a worker, not a leader,” she said. “I am grateful, but I'm not the person in the county who does, gives or cares the most.”
Plenty of residents disagree.
Kelly Haskins told Parker that she could only run continuously for three miles when the two first met on the sidelines of a youth soccer field in 2000. Parker told Haskins she was underestimating herself.
“You can run six,” she said.
Haskins celebrated her 40th birthday with a grueling marathon - 26.2 miles - and recently completed a triathlon, an event combining running, swimming and biking.
Haskins credits Parker with those milestones.
“She is a great motivator,” Haskins said of her daily jogging partner. “She's an incredible person. She can get anybody to do anything.”
Since she moved to Lumberton in 1997, the charismatic Parker has been getting residents to exercise, and improving county health and community unity along the way. She resurrected the county's only 5K road race, now called the Rumba on the Lumber, and started a second 5K race dubbed Chevy to the Levee.
“She's a big people person,” said Horace Stacy, who sits on the board of the Robeson County Community Foundation with Parker. “She takes on a lot of obligations, but she doesn't let you down. She carries her load and more.”
Fairmont's Jeff Neelon recalls his first impression of Parker.
“She came into my office, it's probably 1999, and she says, ‘I heard you know everything about promoting a running race and I would like to get one started,''' he said.
Neelon, who had organized road races many years before, quickly declined. But Parker persisted, and eventually convinced Neelon that the race was worth the effort.
About 180 residents slipped on running shoes and pinned numbers on their backs for the first Rumba on the Lumber 5K in 2000. Last March, the Rumba 5K drew more than 480 runners.
The morning race has expanded into a weekend festival that includes a chili cook-off, live bands and a one-mile fun run that drew more than 1,800 residents last year.
“It was all because of Parker,” Neelon said. “She wanted to get residents involved in fitness. She was very dedicated to the community.”
Parker said she chose to promote running because of the overwhelmingly positive effect it had on her life. She said it provides a measurable goal, instills discipline and raises self-esteem.
“It's really worked for me,” she said. “A small dose of exercise does so much for people.”