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Racing to Fight Sickle Cell Disease

Through its annual run, the Sickle Cell Center of Excellence fosters community bonds to raise awareness and battle the disease.

by Amber D. Dodd
President Frederick with alums

President Frederick at a past Sickle Cell race with alumni.

The first sickle cell run sponsored by Howard University transpired on a small stretch down Connecticut Avenue.

Barbara Harrison, genetic counselor at the University’s Sickle Cell Center of Excellence, remembers those early events well. As popularity rose around both the center’s ongoing efforts around sickle cell and the annual 5k run itself, the event expanded to the National Mall, where diverse partnerships began to bloom around the University.

“It was interesting because we heard from the community, ‘This is really nice to be [at the Mall], but we should be back at Howard,’” Harrison recalls. “We’ve really just tried to listen to the folks that participate.”

Now 27 years in, the event still sparks necessary conversations around sickle cell and how the Sickle Cell Center of Excellence combats the disease throughout the nation’s capital.

We’ve really just tried to listen to the folks that participate.”

Despite its longstanding reputation as the country’s oldest center dedicated to the disease, the team has still sought innovative ways to raise awareness and create community partnerships. Events like the sickle cell run help the center join forces with diverse organizations within the Black community and beyond, including fraternities, sororities, Top Ladies of Distinction, Inc., 100 Black Men of America, Inc., and others.

As the run’s audience expanded, so did the event’s purpose: accessibility became a priority when planning out the day’s activities. The center realized how much pain sickle cell may cause certain participants, so they created options for yoga, Zumba, strength training, and kid-friendly events.

In 2019, Howard’s president Wayne A. I. Frederick, MD, MBA, ran a monthly 5k to raise awareness around sickle cell. His participation married his presidential responsibilities of highlighting Howard’s center and his personal sickle cell diagnosis.

That September, which is annually Sickle Cell Awareness Month, Frederick’s personal 5k coincided with the University’s “Stomp Out Sickle Cell 5k.” With Dr. Frederick’s participation and star power, the 2019 event was the biggest run to date. The women’s tennis team, track team, volleyball team, and many undergraduates were all in attendance as well.

Just signing up, they’ve brought awareness to an important disease.”

This year’s event leaned on its community-based traditions. Undergraduate students served as walk monitors to ensure the well-being of participants and keep them on track, participants began the walk at the Howard University Hospital Plaza and continued throughout the University, and volunteers distributed free t-shirts and pins to members of the public.

However, a new tradition was introduced to this year’s run. The Center of Excellence partnered with Nike for its Nike Run Club app, which logged participants’ running metrics from September 1 to September 30. But, with the help of DC’s sickle cell community, the run will reflect the traditions of the University’s sickle cell center for the 17th year and running.

“We have not charged any money for the quite the last few years now and that’s really been driven by sponsors,” says center director James Taylor, PhD. “Just signing up, they’ve brought awareness to an important disease.”

This story appears in the Fall 2023 issue.
Article ID: 1556

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