Ten days after Jordan Connell embarked on a long-distance run from the Washington riverfront headed west along Front Street, he was coming out of the East, running along the Rotary Riverfront Trail up toward the train tracks, closing a 154-mile loop he had made around the perimeter of Franklin County.
He had run about 15 miles a day from Washington to New Haven; New Haven to Berger; Berger to Gerald; Gerald to Japan; Japan to Sullivan; Sullivan to Catawissa; Catawissa to Pacific; Pacific to St. Albans; and St. Albans back to Washington.
The 2007 Union High School graduate began his run Tuesday, Sept. 3, and ended it Thursday, Sept. 12.
You may have seen him out on the roadways, in his bright orange Nike Free 5.0 running shoes and “Team314.org” running shirt. Connell hopes you did notice him. The whole purpose of his run was to attract attention.
If Connell’s name sounds familiar, it could be because he made headlines earlier this year when he completed a 3,080-mile run across the United States, from New York City’s Central Park to Santa Monica Pier in California, as a way to learn about and raise awareness of youth homelessness.
(The Missourian ran a feature story on his run and background in February. You can read about it here).
When Connell returned home to Union in January, he was ready for the next leg of his journey — working to help the homeless youth in Franklin County. But as he’s made connections with other like-minded people and been working toward this goal, the team of volunteers have realized that approach is too small to fit the problem. They needed to think bigger.
“We’ve spent the last eight months trying to connect with youth, and we realized that on our own as a team, we’re not going to have enough resources,” said Connell.
“The seven of us (at Team314), realize we can connect with these kids, and they’re showing up on the weekend, but we need a larger support base. We need kids in every school district to know that there is someone there that they can turn to.”
Matthew Clayton, who operated The Crux youth ministry and rec center in Washington for 7 1/2 years before closing it down recently, has been working closely with Connell since he returned to Franklin County. The Crux regularly held concerts and events for youth and connected with thousands of local youth — many of them “in trouble,” “broken” — over the years.
“We realize the solution isn’t a youth center, the solution is bigger than that,” said Clayton. “So what we’re working toward right now is seeing multiple locations develop where teens can connect with healthy role models.
“We realized the solution we were working on wasn’t as big as the problem. So now we’re scaling up our solution to actually address the scope of the problem.”
One of the things Team 314 has achieved is establishing the Legacy Prayer House at 102 E. Fifth St. in Washington (just east of the intersection with Market Street).
“LPH” as the sign on the porch reads, is not a church, but it is open 24-7 for people to come to pray. And that is what Team314 is asking of the community right now.
“Above all, we’re looking for people to join us in praying for every student in Franklin County,” said Connell. “And as we connect through prayer, we’re looking to connect with safe families . . . so we don’t have to build a shelter. We can send (homeless youth) to a family who loves them.”
Similar to foster families, these “safe families” would voluntarily take in youth to offer them a respite, Connell explained.
Currently, formal prayer gatherings are being held at Legacy Prayer House on Tuesday nights and Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m. but people are welcome to stop by any hour of the day or night.
Ultimately, increased church unity is what Team 314 sees as the solution to youth homelessness.
“There are so many different issues that lead to youth homelessness, and we’re trying to address several of them,” said Clayton, “but the solution to that is seeing the church revived in such a way that churches work together to enter into that darkness and brokenness and help the kids.
“There’s a segment of the youth population that’s just kind of falling through the cracks.”
Exactly how to do that is the tricky part, Clayton admits.
“Those are things that we’re still working on and praying on. We don’t pretend to be experts on any of this. We’re just trying to figure it out.”
Through concerts and youth events held at The Crux over the last several months, Team314 connected with hundreds and hundreds of teens.
“They shared their broken stories with us,” said Connell, “ . . . of how they weren’t getting along with their parents at home, they were in homes that were abusive, in homes with parents who were doing drugs, how they themselves had followed the same patterns, and they were looking for a group of people who would love them.
“They wanted a way out, but they didn’t know what it was,” said Connell. “As they continued to share this, we realized that these kids are experiencing and learning at a young age that the world is short on love, and they don’t know where to turn.
“But we all realize that God is infinite in love. If he is infinite in love, then we’re supposed to be the distribution center of his love. So as we run around this county, we’re trying to invite the churches and the local school districts to be that love to their local kids, and to join us in providing an outlet and a connection for those teenagers, so there isn’t just one house where kids can turn to in Washington, but eventually there’s a safe place in every school district.
“We want to connect with as many churches as possible, to continue to raise awareness of this homeless epidemic that we continue to see,” Connell continued. “As we had started this, we had connected with multiple homeless youth . . . so we wanted to share the reality of homelessness in Franklin County, as well as begin to reach out and say, ‘We can’t do this alone. Will you join us?’ ”
From the beginning, Team314 has been taking its cues for this mission from God. About two months ago, the team felt it had developed a fall schedule of events for area youth, but then felt led to pray about it, to take their plan to God.
“So we put our calendar on the altar and we spent 40 days of 24-7 prayer, taking shifts at our prayer house . . . God has been continuing to give us one-step-at-a-time direction to that,” said Clayton.
During those 40 days is when Connell felt led to embark on his countywide run.
A Series of Surprises
Just like his run across the country had been, Connell’s run around the county was a series of surprises.
For starters, the temperatures were among the hottest of the year.
“The first two days we were trying to avoid traffic, so ran in late morning-mid afternoon, but those days it was upper 90s,” said Connell, noting that left him dehydrated and sunburned.
So the team switched to early morning runs, but there also was one day when it rained all day.
Connell said he never considered postponing the run until cooler weather arrived.
“I figured I could get it done in three hours each day, so as long as we could push through . . .
“Most of the run was on the highways . . . One of our prayer leaders, Becky, she traveled the county the week before and mapped all the roads and found the outer lying circle, which was 154 miles.
“We went out and just started doing 15-mile segments.”
The toughest area was along Highway T through Labadie. To keep Connell as safe as possible, other Team 314 members drove a support vehicle right behind him.
From the beginning of Connell’s efforts to use running as a means to raise awareness of youth homelessness, the sport has been a perfect metaphor for what the team is seeking to accomplish.
“Running has taught me that I’m not going to get to the end without taking one step at a time . . . to endure the small challenges that people and organizations put in the way of trying to offer a safe place for kids to go,” said Connell.
That’s why he doesn’t plan to stop running to raise awareness. “What we’re trying to do now is develop a prototype that we can spread to other counties,” said Clayton.
That could include running the perimeters of other counties, doing revival relays to bring churches together to pray for their counties . . .
“The things we are working on, we are trying to develop a system that can be reproduced, but we’re in the very early stages of that,” said Clayton.
Eventually, “we want to go back out to the counties that I ran through across the country and bring runners with us, circle those counties and teach them how to do this,” Connell noted.
“Specifically rural America, small towns . . . where there aren’t programs for teens.”
Last fall as Connell ran across the country, many of the communities he stopped in asked him to stay and help them establish youth shelters and centers, to guide them in helping the homeless youth of their area.
For now though, be on the lookout for Connell running around Franklin County. He intends to continue his runs here in preparation for next year’s Leadville 100 — Race Across the Sky in Colorado.
Leadville is the highest city in America, and this 100-mile race across extreme Colorado Rockies terrain goes from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet.
Connell recently had the opportunity to be part of a support crew for a man from St. Louis who, at 55 years old, ran his first 100-mile race, and felt inspired by the experience.
Team314 members from across Franklin County include:
Jordan Connell, Matt and Gretchen Clayton (their 2-year-old son, Isaac, is the team “mascot”), Amber McCain, Jackie Scharfenberg, Rob Bollinger and Josh Hartle.
For more information, people can visit www.team314.org.