Key Training Center director Chet Cole ran into a hero's welcome Saturday, as he led the runners on the last leg of the 180-mile Run for the Money.
Waiting for him at the finish line were hundreds of Key Training Center clients and supporters, cheering and clapping as the pack of runners reached the center's grounds.
Run for the Money is the emotional highlight of a weeklong fund-raising event for the Key Training Center. The Key center provides housing, training and job skills to mentally retarded adults in Citrus County.
After completing the final portion of the run, Cole and other runners greeted their friends and families. Cole walked over to a group of Key Training Center clients who were wheelchair-bound and kissed each one.
This was the 20th year for the Run for the Money. Though the welcoming crowd was somewhat smaller than in the past, the gratitude and love were just as strong.
Afterward, in the studio of the independent television station operated by the Key Training Center, Cole began to sum up his feelings of love and advocacy for the mentally retarded. At times, his voice cracked with emotion.
"All the love that I'm feeling in this room right now, it makes me want to call this the Run for Love, not the Run for the Money," Cole said.
Cole said the support and love Citrus County residents have shown toward the Key and its mentally retarded clients in the past 25 years have served as a role model for the entire nation. He said the runners who accompanied him on the trip told him repeatedly they considered it a privilege.
"If we could somehow take this, bottle it up and spread it through the country, you wouldn't have the mentally retarded warehoused for life, serving a life sentence without committing any crime other than the fact they need love and support," he said.
The grounds of the Key Training Center were converted into a huge musical cookout Saturday. The popular band Waycross Express performed twice. Clowns wandered about offering skits and face paintings, and burgers, hot dogs and barbecue pork sandwiches were served.
The Key has a goal of raising $95,000 this year, and the final result will be announced after the end of Saturday night's telethon.