Monday, January 22, 2018
Events

Westchase reaps benefits of community activist

WESTCHASE — Chris Barrett, it seems, is always on the run.

While some people jokingly refer to him as the unofficial mayor of Westchase, a 3,500-home community in northwest Hillsborough County that is celebrating its 25th anniversary, he says it's more like being "concierge for the largest hotel in Florida.''

Barrett, a former high school teacher, is a thoughtful community activist who is best known as publisher/managing editor of the World of Westchase, or WOW, the monthly Westchase newsmagazine that covers the area's happenings.

Because of that high-profile role, he's often perceived as the community's answer man. Indeed, he sometimes gets phone calls at home from residents with all sorts of questions, including some complaining that their garbage was not picked up.

"I'll pass along the correct number to call,'' Barrett said. "People are busy and they might not know how to get something done. I can help. I kind of like looking for solutions. There's always some kind of idea bouncing around my head.''

One of Barrett's best ideas happens again Saturday, when the Great West Chase, a 5- and 10-kilometer road race that benefits disadvantaged elementary school students, roars through the community for the 15th consecutive year.

The initial thought occurred to Barrett as he jogged around his neighborhood on a cool 2002 evening — "Westchase is perfect for a road race,'' he mused with no specific plan in mind — and it soon morphed into a full-fledged happening.

More than 1,200 runners are expected for the Great West Chase, which has some participants in the Halloween spirit, competing in full costume.

The 10K begins at 7 a.m., followed by the 5K at 8 and a Children's Fun Run at 9. The 5K begins in West Park Village at the base of Montague Street, proceeding west on Linebaugh Avenue (and for the 10K, north on Countryway Boulevard) before returning and finishing near its start.

Entry fees are $45 for the 10K and $35 for the 5K. For registration information, go online to thegreatwestchase.com.

Barrett said the event is "a race against illiteracy and disadvantage.''

Proceeds will benefit Bellamy Elementary School, a Title I school and feeder for Westchase's Davidsen Middle School. Eighty-seven percent of Bellamy's students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Last year, the race raised $33,000 for Davis Elementary, a Title I school with a large number of disadvantaged kids, including some living at the Children's Home.

WOW underwrites all the event's costs, with sponsors and race fees helping to raise funds for the beneficiaries.

Barrett said the event's real hero is Tracy Urso, the WOW business manager and chief race organizer.

"No one is more organized at putting on an event than Tracy,'' Barrett said. "The true measure of a race is the amount of return runners that you get, and we have quite a loyal following. I'd challenge anyone to find a better-run race, and that's due to Tracy's hard work.''

Barrett also praised the Westchase Community Association Board of Directors, a five-resident organization that is "committed to keeping the WOW a quality publication (and) ensuring WOW is a force for good in its charitable giving and its support for local schools and scholarships.''

Community service always has been meaningful for Barrett, who was Jesuit educated (Scranton Prep in Pennsylvania) and taught at two Jesuit high schools (Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., along with Tampa's Jesuit High).

"I always tell my three daughters, 'Whatever community you live in, you have to be involved,' " Barrett said. "If you want a strong community, a place worthy of calling home, it's about more than paying your (community) dues and voting. You have to take ownership. Yes, it's time consuming and we're all busy. But it's absolutely worth it. You can help to shape your community.''

By now, Barrett's wife, Maria Aranda, a clinical psychologist, and their three daughters, Maya, Emma and Grace, have become accustomed to him being stopped at the grocery store by Westchase residents who want to chat or pass along a news tip.

They also understand that there's rarely any off-time for a man so deeply committed to his community.

Barrett has written two novels — The Odd Fellows Society, a mystery set in the nation's capital, and A Mouse's First Christmas, A Holiday Tail, a book designed for children in third to sixth grades.

He hopes to write more — when he finds time between producing the WOW newsletter and dreaming up even better ways to advocate for his community.

"I am incredibly biased, but I think I live in the best place, and I love helping to make it better,'' Barrett said. "We can all do a little more and use our skills and talents for the greater good. That's kind of what I've always lived by.''

That's the motivation behind the Great West Chase.

And it's a fitting race theme for the Westchase answer man who's seemingly always on the run.

Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]

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