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Organizers of an inaugural run scheduled for this weekend say they hope their efforts help children shouldering heavy loads at home.

The Caring Heart Run will benefit the Caregiving Youth Project of Pinellas, which provides support for local children who help care for ailing or disabled family members.

There are more children acting as caregivers than most people think, said Jeni L. Coticchio, executive director of Caregivers Support Network, the nonprofit organization running the project.

Of 1,895 students surveyed last spring at Largo Middle and Largo High schools, 534 said they helped care for someone in their home. Of those, 280, or about 15 percent, said those duties hindered their studies.

"It definitely distracts them from focusing on their education and it also robs them of their youth," Coticchio said.

A follow-up survey to determine who needed help the most was conducted in December at Largo Middle, where a pilot program will begin this year. Students will have access to counseling, support groups, respite care and education about caregiving, Coticchio said.

A 2006 report published by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation showed 22 percent of young adults who left school for personal reasons did so to care for a family member.

That's why it's so important to reach out to students, who are ill-equipped to deal with such mature responsibilities, Coticchio said.

"I cared for my mother at the end of her life and I was totally consumed with it," she said. "And I was an adult, so can you imagine these children having to think these things through?"

Rita Farlow can be reached at or (727) 445-4162.


Caring Heart Run

What is it?: A 5K run and a 1 mile run/walk

Registration: Begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the Palms of Largo campus, 200 Lake Ave., Largo.

Start: 8:30 a.m. Largo Mayor Pat Gerard will kick off the event, which will be hosted by Al Ruechel of Bay News 9. T-shirts, awards and refreshments for participants.

Fees: $15 for early registration through Thursday, $20 on the day of the race.

Benefits: Caregiving Youth Project of Pinellas. Applicants can sign up online on the Caregivers Support Network Web site at

Traffic diverting: Parts of Lake Avenue NE and Alternate Keene Road, around the Palms campus, during the morning.