Marathoners Run to Help ‘Grab the Torch’

Printed from:

BOSTON — Paula Broadwell, a retired military officer and West Point graduate, is an accomplished athlete. Seventeen years ago she completed her first marathon, averaging a seven-minute mile. Now, she is looking to complete her second marathon next week in the nation’s most famous footrace, the Boston Marathon. This time however, she will not be running for herself, but to raise awareness for Grab the Torch, an organization designed to empower young women to become leaders.

Founded in 2008 by Dave Aldrich, Grab the Torch is more than your average leadership program. Every year, the organization hosts week-long summer institutes in Denver, Boston, and Maine. The purpose of the program is not simply to teach young people how to be better leaders, but also how to guide their talents in service of others.

Aldrich, who also serves as Grab the Torch’s chief executive officer, said in an interview with New Boston Post that he is a “firm believer that empathy and walking in another’s shoes are much more impactful than a bleeding heart.” He added that his organization’s emphasis on self-awareness is another critical aspect that distinguishes Grab the Torch’s mission from other programs: “You can’t be a true leader until you understand who you are, and what drives you.”

The idea for Grab the Torch came years before its inception. Aldrich and his wife raised their daughter, Katy, with a constant focus on giving back to their community. As Aldrich described it, “volunteering is in the DNA of our family.” However, he soon noticed that many of the organizations he worked for suffered from the same problem:  “There were a lot of guys like me, pasty white guys, doing great things, but where was the next generation?”

The solution, as Aldrich saw it, was to try to create something that would train tomorrow’s leaders, with a focus on ethics and philanthropy.

The result was Grab the Torch.

Now, nearly a decade since the organization started, more than 700 kids have gone through the program. Originally it was open to young men and women, but now Aldrich has re-shaped it into a girls-only program.

“Girls tend to open up more in single-sex settings,” he said, which was a large factor in his decision. “Plus, you get rid of the whole distracting teenage boy-girl element,” he added with a chuckle. “It makes it much easier for everyone.”

Grab the Torch has exceeded Aldrich’s expectations by changing the lives of hundreds of teen-agers. For Angeli Rodriguez, who attended the summer institute in Denver four years ago, her week with Grab the Torch represented a turning point in her life.

Now a sophomore studying marketing at Boston University, Rodriguez was a shy sophomore in a small Catholic high school when her mother read about Grab the Torch and encouraged her to attend.

Although the deadline for the application had passed, Aldrich accepted Rodriguez into the program, and for the first time, she nervously boarded an airplane by herself and flew from her familiar community in Florida to meet Aldrich and the other program participants in Denver.

Angeli laughs now at her original misgivings. “I had never felt so connected to students so quickly,” she told New Boston Post. The week left her determined to make a difference, and ignited her passion for helping other young women achieve their goals as well.

Upon returning to her high school, she founded a chapter of Girl Up, a United Nations initiative designed to promote health and education for girls in developing nations.

Four years later, Angeli is happily installed at Boston University, having earned a full merit scholarship, but she has not forgotten the impact Grab the Torch had on her life. She continues to work with the organization, and helped officials launch their blog, which gathers testimonies from other alumnae of the program.

Angeli credits much of her success to her parents, both immigrants from Cuba; however, she also thanks Grab the Torch and Aldrich for giving her the guidance and the confidence to become a leader and to harness her talents for the betterment of others.

Angeli’s story, and the hundreds of girls who owe so much to Grab the Torch, are a large part of the reason why Paula Broadwell is lacing up her running shoes next Monday.

Aldrich originally met Broadwell several years ago at an event for Got Your 6, a veterans’ advocacy organization. The two kept in touch, and last year Aldrich mentioned to her the idea of joining Grab the Torch’s three-person marathon team.

Broadwelll, who is an accomplished triathlete, was originally hesitant to take on the training for another marathon. However, as she told New Boston Post, she sees the mission of Grab the Torch as critical, and one that dovetails with her own foundation, Think Broader.

Think Broader focuses on gender-bias in Hollywood and in the media. The low number of female protagonists, the hyper-sexualization of women in advertising, and the lack of female voices in the media are a few of the issues Broadwell hopes to tackle.

“I’m identifying the problem, and Dave is on the other side working to solve it,” she told New Boston Post. “His work so closely aligns with what I’m trying to do… bring young women together and give them a network of support and female role models, as well as experience.”

Broadwell also hopes to use her own personal and professional experiences to teach resiliency to young women. Five years ago Broadwell became the center of a scandal when it was revealed that she’d had a romantic relationship with General David Petraeus, whose biography she was writing at the time. The media’s ensuing treatment of her, in comparison to its treatment of Petraeus, is what prompted Broadwell to found Think Broader.

Using service to overcome challenges and to make amends is a key mechanism Broadwell says she thinks is critical for young people to learn. They have to know how to reframe obstacles and put them in perspective. It’s a lesson she says she learned from her mother, who encouraged her children to constantly find ways to serve others. “You have to serve something greater than yourself out there,” she said, “especially during difficult times.

Aldrich understands that message well. When he founded Grab the Torch, it was right after the 2008 crash, hardly an ideal economic climate in which to start a nonprofit. A less determined man, or one less passionate about his cause, may have given up. Aldrich did not, and as his organization grew, and the powerful testimonies of its graduates piled up, he pushed to find new ways to support his vision. That meant pitching his organization to John Hancock’s Non-Profit  Marathon, and running himself as part Grab the Torch’s marathon team in 2016. It was his first long-distance race, but after months of grueling training, Aldrich crossed the finish line.

This year, he’ll be watching from the sidelines, but for him, the best part will be the Grab the Torch alumnae who will be standing alongside him, cheering for the organization that changed their lives.

Click here to donate to the Grab the Torch marathon team.