This post is part of an ongoing series on Shine presented by Rally.org, the crowdfunding site for social good.Rally explores thousands of user stories to find and share with you their most inspiring examples of people helping people across the country and around the world.
Emily Toia is a 36-year-old mom from Arizona. This week she'll attempt to do what few of us have done before: run 100 miles in 24 hours on a treadmill in the middle of San Francisco's busiest neighborhood. And if that weren't enough, she'll do it all for a charity benefitting children's education. This won't be the first time Emily-who goes by the nickname Emz-pulls a treadmill all-nighter for a good cause.
The person she credits for inspiring her to take on such an unconventional challenge? Her unconventional mother-in-law.
In 2011 Toia completed her first treadmill race for Sojourner Center in Phoenix, Ariz., one of the country's largest domestic-violence shelters. On Thursday she'll run 100 consecutive miles in one day to raise money and awareness for Effect International, which builds schools, trains and mentors teachers, and partners with local government to make education accessible to the poorest children in India.
The journey to Toia's first treadmill run actually began on her high school volleyball court. As a teen, she earned a college scholarship, only to suffer a crippling ankle injury in 11th grade. She took up running in the hope that she'd eventually return to the volleyball team, but she decided to stick with running, instead. Even though running wasn't easy, she fell in love with the calming, centering feeling that it gave her.
"I wouldn't say it came naturally to me, but when I'd go out, I found that I could run a little further than my friends," Toia said. "Running was something I could do for myself, and it gave me time to think. For some reason, it felt really good to run." So good that she completed her first marathon in 1999.
Around the same time she learned about how her mother-in-law had survived 12 years of domestic violence while she was raising kids. Thinking about her mother-in-law escaping that marriage and rebuilding her family's life, Toia just knew she wanted to raise money for Sojourner Center. During that inaugural 100-mile run in downtown Phoenix, she chatted with everyone from her daughter's church youth group to an elementary school class that came to cheer her on to people going out to dinner in the neighborhood. But the spectators that made the most emotional impression on Toia shared how they had fled their abusive relationships and thrived.
"It's amazing to me what they've gone though and that something as silly as me running seemed to mean a lot to them," she said. "That was the most incredible part about it. All I was doing was raising money, but I got to hear all these incredible stories: How much better they're doing, how Sojourner changed their life. I must have cried 14, 15 times that day."
Flash forward almost two years: A running acquaintance heard about Toia's first 24-hour treadmill race for charity and suggested she do another for Effect. Although she had never heard about the organization, she researched their work with schools in India and considered if she felt enough passion about the cause to run 24 hours for it. Once again her thoughts turned to her mother-in-law, who volunteers with an international education non-profit. The group travels to India twice a year to work with schools there.
"She teaches teachers and students in India," Toia said. "That's what she enjoys the most, reading books to the kids. She just has a huge heart."
After the admiring daughter-in-law did some soul-searching, she decided to go full-steam ahead with the 100-miler to raise money and awareness for Effect. Toia's runs for charity bear the name Run EMZ, combining her nickname with a nod to hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC. As with the previous 24 hours of Run EMZ, a second treadmill will be set up alongside her. Anyone who donates at least $50 can sprint, jog, or walk along with Emz as she chips away at almost four back-to-back marathons.
Leading up to this event and all her other races, she's detailed her training exploits on her quirky running blog and a personal blog she created years ago to chronicle the Toia family's doings. She's also spent time with the woman she respects most, discussing education in the developing world and how she could contribute to improving the lives of children thousands of miles away.
"In talking with my mother-in-law about the need for educating children in India, about how many children there can't read, it reminds me that I take public education for granted as a mom in the U.S.," said Toia. "When our children go to school, we have all the tools and resources built in.
"Kids in India don't have that. You can't just say they're going to learn, because if they don't have the facilities, they're not."
Toia has also had conversations with friends about choosing to run for a non-profit that helps children abroad rather than children in the U.S. She has a nephew with autism, for instance, so why not fundraise for an autism-related organization here? Running 100 miles for 24 hours, she directs a lot of her focus inward, visualizing herself completing each mile before she can finally hit the treadmill's stop button. She loves that running to benefit a community on the other side of the world has pushed her to turn that focus outward and share her passion.
"Being a mom, being a human, we get so caught up with the needs we see right in front of us," she said. "I love that Effect struck a chord with me because it forced me to look outside the U.S. You can't just turn your back on people in other countries. I love the thought of thinking a little outside the norm."
Follow and support the Run EMZ story at rally.org/runemz.