TAMPA — A year ago, Brandon Bessette was running mostly on a whim.
As an organizer of an event to raise money for needy kids at a Tampa elementary school, he simply laced up his running shoes and took off on a 124-mile trek between the University of South Florida in Tampa and the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Little did he know how tough it would be, even for a healthy 22-year-old with a fair amount of running experience. By the end of his first day of traversing the 30 miles of back roads, he was whipped.
"I admit, I had thoughts about backing out," Bessette recalled Thursday. "I really didn't think I was going be able to make it."
With rest, Bessette managed to renew his spirits and continued the journey to its conclusion.
The fundraising effort paid off and he was able to collect nearly $5,000 worth of school supplies, including 300 backpacks, that were given out to kids at Shaw Elementary School in Tampa.
For the USF accounting student and 2004 graduate of Springstead High School in Hernando County, the charity run begins anew tonight when he and former Springstead High classmates Jon Doyle, Matthew Carroll, Matt Haskadekes and Brandon Arigoni take to the road to repeat the run.
With a support crew on bicycles to carry food and sports drinks, they'll be running mostly on two-lane roads at night to avoid both traffic and blistering daytime heat. With luck, the team will make the Orlando destination sometime Sunday morning.
Bessette said he learned a lot from last year's run.
"Last time, we put the whole thing together in about 3 1/2 weeks, and it wasn't enough," he said. "This time, the idea is not to get worn out so fast."
Bessette, a Big Brother for a student who attends Shaw Elementary, said his motivation to help came as a result of seeing the poverty that shrouds many of the students at the school.
Nearly 96 percent of the students are on free or reduced-price lunches, and many kids come from families that struggle to provide basic needs such as clothing and shoes. School supplies are often very low on the list.
"I just felt like I could do something,'' he said, "something that might be more meaningful to people than to just give money."
In January 2008, Bessette and a group of friends started "100 Miles For a Needy Child" on Facebook and began seeking donations of backpacks filled with school supplies.
An employee at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa collected eight backpacks. Bessette's boss at Health Care Parking Systems of America, a valet and guest service company, came up with a per-mile sponsorship and other donations.
Bessette said the grass roots effort has picked up steam recently. So far, he has enlisted several Hernando sponsors, including Hooters and Perkins restaurants and Cortez Bank. With other donations he hopes to double the take of donated supplies to include two elementary schools in Hernando and Orange counties as well as Shaw Elementary in Hillsborough.
Although he realizes his impending graduation from USF may mean he'll have to move to find work, Bessette says he and his friends are hoping their charity run will inspire others to follow.
"The need will never go away," he said. "All it takes is someone willing to answer that need."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435.