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Honoring Baldwin student's memory a decade after tragedy

The Baldwin School’s Alex Wake Memorial 5K Run and 1 Mile Family Fun Walk continues to educate the community about domestic violence and raise funds for a scholarship in the 14-year-old’s name.

While mourning the death of her family, Eugena Skinker was saddened at the thought that her 14-year-old niece, Alex Wake, would no longer join her cousins on the skating rink, roller coaster rides and at church events during the family's traditional summer visits.

Though it wouldn't take away years of grief, the 70-year-old aunt, who hosted the summer trips at her home in Willingboro, NJ, was joyful when she learned The Baldwin School started a memorial run to honor Wake.

"She loved Baldwin and she loved learning," Skinker said of the late Baldwin student. "When a boy was interested in her, she once said to me, 'don't you worry about that, Aunt Jean, my education comes first'…I thought it was a tremendous tribute."

Since its inception, the Alex Wake Memorial 5K Run and 1 Mile Family Fun Walk raised more than $240,000 in donations that support not only the Bryn Mawr School's athletics programs, but also a scholarship in Wake's name that benefits multiple students.

The Upper School Student Athletic Association, Baldwin's Athletic Department and the school's development office first produced the event after Wake's death on Jan. 15, 2002.

The Baldwin freshman, her mother, Sandra Watkins, and grandparents Jimmy and Juanita Watkins were shot and killed that evening in their Ardmore home by her stepfather, Michael Burgess. Watkins had called the police on Burgess twice in late 2001, and Burgess was admitted to Lankenau Hospital for psychiatric treatment prior to the tragedy.

Baldwin Athletic Director Deborah Surgi said more than 400 staff, faculty, students, alum and surrounding community members came to last year's run, also co-produced by the parent athletics organization, Blue Gray.

Surgi said that Baldwin holds educational initiatives on domestic violence as well as guest speakers like Janine Kelly for students in the days prior to the memorial run.

Kelly, community education coordinator of the Women's Center of Montgomery County, has participated in the programming for the past three years and has spoken about domestic violence at numerous schools, including at the pre-kindergarten and elementary level. She says the wording for each workshop is different depending on age, but the message is the same.

"Hold on to your power and know yourself," Kelly said. "The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself…people who are controlling, manipulative or abusive are going to do their darndest to take that away from you."

For more than a decade, friends and family of Alex Wake have worked to spread this message.

Rebecca Pryor, Wake's friend and a Baldwin alumna, was among 34 speakers at a Jan. 2010 event of the bi-partisan coalition, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Pryor, 24, spoke about losing Wake to gun violence.

"To be able to stand up and say, 'this happened to my friend,' and relate it to the importance of why there should be gun check reforms in this country was a wonderful opportunity," Pryor said.

The New York City resident, who works for an international development organization, has been to five of the memorial runs, and will attend this Saturday's event.

Baldwin class of 2005 alumna Marielle Noble was chair of the Upper School Student Athletic Association her senior year, and was responsible in helping organize the event. The 24-year-old Los Angeles resident and entertainment industry project developer is the co-creator of the 2005 video on Baldwin's website.

"I feared that after our class, [Alex] would be out of sight, out of mind," Marielle said. "I channeled all my energy into the Alex Wake Run, endowing the scholarship in her name so it wouldn't fade away.

"The video was something I was really proud of," Noble added. "Alex was my closest friend at Baldwin, and what happened to her was a total shock…I guess my hope [for the run] is that people learn to recognize similar situations."

Baldwin Senior Tiffany Hau, 18, was very young when the tragedy happened, but remembers Wake and her mother very well.

"Every year, Baldwin students watch [Marielle's] video, and it reminds me of the times when Alex and I would watch TV and make mac and cheese," Hau, current chair of the Athletic Association, wrote in email.

For the Saturday, May 5 run, Hau and the rest of the Athletic Association have advertised with brochures and flyers as well as packed all the runner's bags with giveaways, gift cards and donations from multiple companies, such as Arrowroot Natural Market, Bryn Mawr Running Company and Arbonne.

Registration for the run and walk event, which starts at 9 a.m. by the baldwin School Athletic Center, is still opened. There's a fee of $17 for students and $27 for non-students.

"I remember seeing Alex's friendly face in the hallway and I was proud to know an Upper Schooler, and I am still proud to say I knew someone who made such an impact on the Baldwin community," Hau said.

Skinker always wanted to open a transitional home for women with young children, but had to put the dream on pause.

Losing her family made Skinker realized she had to go ahead with creating the facility, which opened in 2008 and is part of the faith-based nonprofit, Impact Ministries.

"It was amazing that the very first family of six previously lived at a domestic violence shelter," Skinker recalled.

Surgi stressed the importance of the event in reducing the stigma attached to victims of domestic violence through the communitywide discussion.

"One of the reasons we have this issue is that people are afraid to talk about it with friends and families, and much less within communities…I say fight the stigma," Surgi said.

Skinker said at least three to five members of the family try to attend the run in honor of her brilliant, mature, yet fun-loving girl niece. She plans on attending this Saturday.

"It's been 10 years, and there's not a day that goes by when I don't think about Alex, my sister and my niece [Sandra]," Skinker said.

"I was moved when they said they were going to do this, and honor Alex, mainly because it brings attention to the issue of domestic violence," Skinker said. "And in doing so, it could save lives."