Playful shouts and cheers radiated from a dimly lit park in Camden Wednesday evening as the children ran laps around a soccer field in 40-degree temperatures, some still wearing their Catholic-school uniforms.
Luis Gaitan, a 29-year-old Navy veteran, felt pride as he watched the group — students and graduates of St. Anthony of Padua School — from the sidelines. He has been training them for seven months for this weekend's Philadelphia Half Marathon.
On Saturday, five team members, ages 12 to 18, will run 13.1 miles alongside other participants, while another half dozen from the team compete in the Rothman 8K.
"Let's go. One more time," Gaitan said in Spanish as an 11-year-old led the team's closing chant.
All the kids are part of a new mentorship program, called "I Run This City: Camden, NJ," that now involves about 40 runners. It grew last year out of the established Philadelphia non-profit "Students Run Philly Style."
For Gaitan, connecting with the children is important.
He attended the same Catholic school 15 years ago. Growing up in Camden, Gaitan used to ride his bike to the park. In the Spanish-speaking students, Gaitan said he sees himself.
"It's encouraging as a young person to see someone that looks like you doing good things," said Gaitan, who graduated from Villanova University and works in Cherry Hill as a civil engineer. "I think it does wonders for the psyche."
Twice a week, they have practiced at Von Nieda Park, starting with stretches before racing. It gets competitive, Gaitan said, but the main objective is teaching these young Camden residents to set and achieve long-term goals.
Sixth-grader Diana Damorano, 11, of Camden, said she is more ambitious since joining the group and has learned how to commit herself to crossing the finish line. Earlier this month, she and seven other teammates ran the 10-mile Cooper Norcross Run the Bridge Event.
The Philadelphia Half Marathon, started in 2006, is a warm-up act for Sunday's full, 26.2-mile marathon. Runners in the half marathon will experience a new course this year, starting on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and for the first time passing directly in front of Independence Hall.
"I see how everyone is working so hard, even if they're in the back, and that motivates me to keep going," Damorano said. If she didn't join the track team, she said she would be watching Netflix at home.
Joining the track team also brought 17-year-old Alex Tapia help in transitioning out of his high school.
As Tapia finishes at Camden County Technical Schools in Sicklerville, he is preparing to join the Air Force. After visiting his parents' home country of Mexico over the summer and seeing poverty there, Tapia was inspired to join the military to give back to America. But he hasn't gone through the lengthy application and interview process alone.
Gaitan, himself an officer once stationed in Afghanistan, has offered Tapia guidance along the way.
"He's given me plenty of advice," Tapia said. "Basically what I should expect and what kind of benefits I'll get from joining the military."
That's exactly why the sister program in Camden was created, said Lauren Kobylarz, program director for Students Run Philly Style, which began in 2004 with 50 students and has grown to more than 1,000 members.
Each mentor receives a full day of training to learn open communication skills and ways to better connect with their students. In one word, she described the setup: "Inspiring."
"The relationships that are forming are invaluable," Kobylarz said. "Watching [the students] succeed is inspiring everyone on the other side of the bridge."