A graduate of Walled Lake Western High School and a math teacher and track and field coach at Walled Lake Central, Nebjosa Stojkovic, 28, has always believed Walled Lake would be a great place to hold a 5K run. As a student at the University of Michigan, he deeply admired and respected Mott Children’s Hospital. In 2008, he found a way to connect the two together when he founded Passion for Life, a non-profit organization that hosts a 5K run and other events to benefit medical research at the university’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital as well as current and past local “inspirational families” of children who suffer from a childhood disease or disability. For the past couple years, the Passion for Life 5K has been the largest 5K in the month of March in the Midwest. Stojkovic, a Commerce resident, hopes that one day they will be able to grow even more — first regionally and then nationally — to help support children’s hospitals across the nation.
SCN: You founded an organization a few years ago called Passion For Life. Tell us about it and its mission.
NS: It’s been very successful. You know, this past year we raised more money for Mott’s Children’s hospital and the Drew Crew, more than we have in any of the previous years. The event has grown from year to year and the support has grown from year to year, and our overall goal and mission for it is to expand it to a regional and national level. So that we’re supporting more than just U-M children’s hospital, but trying to support the research that is happening across the country and getting those children the support and funds that they need to help get rid of some of these disabilities and illnesses that are plaguing our children.
SCN: What first inspired you to start Passion For Life? What made you decide to have it be a 5K run?
NS: I was actually inspired to do it because it was a fund-raiser for the track and field program (at Central), and it turned into being something a little bit bigger. I felt like it had its own agenda after the first year, and a lot of people joined the cause — volunteers that were from around Walled Lake and from Commerce that just wanted to be supporters of helping the children’s hospital. I’ve grown up in Walled Lake, I graduated from Walled Lake Western and went through Walled Lake Schools, and I just kind of always wondered why there was never an event on Walled Lake. The run just seemed to be a perfect event to put on there and to help raise funds for the hospital so that’s where it came from.
SCN: You mentioned it was initially a fund-raiser for Central’s track and field team. Now, was it a fund-raiser for the team or for the hospital at that time?
NS: They were fund raising for the hospital. It was a fund-raiser for them as well. Obviously, it brings in a lot of money so a portion of that year’s race went to the track and field program. And even to this day with my track and field program, I can always come up with 80 volunteers on the day of the race — the majority of them are parents and kids on my track team that help put on the event. Without them, it would be very difficult to put on the event. You bring in almost a thousand runners, and being able to register all those runners and make sure the event is ran off safely requires a lot of people, including the police department and the city. So being able to do all that kind of stuff requires all those people.
SCN: Part of the foundation helps raise funds for U-M Children’s Mott Hospital. How did that partnership come about?
NS: Well with Mott (Children’s Hospital) — I’m a graduate from U-M and so again there was kind of a link and a tie there — when I was at school in Ann Arbor I just kind of grew in love with the hospital and what they did. And there was always a fund-raiser going on in Ann Arbor, so it just seemed like the logical connection. Obviously, I’ve always wanted to do something with the children’s hospital and so it was mainly just a decision between Ann Arbor or the DMC in Detroit. So we ended up choosing Mott, and it’s been a really good partnership since then. We are also doing an event coming up in Aug. 6, a golf outing that is also going to be giving a 100 percent of the profits to U-M Mott Children’s Hospital
SCN: What types of research has been sponsored?
NS: Well, every year we pick a different inspirational family. So that family is kind of the target for what kind of research we want to go after that year. So this year, obviously, it was for Drew Clayborn, the young man who broke his neck outside my classroom and (the proceeds) went towards spinal cord injuries research this year. In previous years, it was for muscular dystrophy, it was for HSAN (Hereditary Sensory Autonomic Neuropathy) and Behcet’s Syndrome, it was for congenital heart defects. Every year, it’s different research. We just kind choose a family that helps direct us in the direction we’d like to send those funds specifically towards. In this year’s event, the main two doctors I’ve been working with — Dr. Dowling and Dr. Russell — and their research is pretty extensive and their laboratories are pretty amazing so that’s where we send most of our money.
SCN: You also pick an inspirational family from the area to sponsor. How are they picked?
NS: We have a crew, like a group of people, who have been volunteers for me that have come in, and we’ve also used our previous inspirational families to choose inspirational families for the upcoming year. And I’ve got a board of directors that includes Dr. Dowling and Dr. Russell from U-M. This year it really wasn’t much of a decision because of the actual circumstances involved and the fact that Drew had done his back flip right outside my room on the day of the race last year. It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do. So we chose Drew.
SCN: Who has been picked in the past? And how have you been able to help them?
NS: The first family was the Guttovz family, and Sydnie was diagnosed with congenital heart defects since birth. And actually Bob Guttovz is also an educator in Walled Lake. And that’s how that connection came about. He’s a football coach here at WLC (Walled Lake Central). And the family after that was the Penrod family. Their son Joe has muscular dystrophy. Jeff Penrod, his father, was actually one of my middle school teachers growing up, so there was that link. And the third family was the Landry family. They had a very, very unusual illness. It was very, very rare, and so we ended up choosing them. And most recently we had, well obviously, Drew.
We raise funds that go towards the hospital, and then in addition to that we have set up a fund for (the families). For example, for Drew, we split (the money this year). We decide based on every year how we were going to split and allocate the money. This year (we split) since Drew was a little bit older than our previous families, who have all been younger children. (For them), we’ve sent (money) to their college funds and medical funds for them that their parents have set up, and we send a yearly check for them. Their first year they get $1,000 and then the following year they get $500. All the way up to the age of 18 they get $500 a year.
SCN: This year’s inspirational family was the Clayborn family to help their son, Drew, who suffered a neck injury leaving him paralyzed. The accident occurred right outside your classroom, and you were the one to administer CPR. Please explain what was going through your mind then.
NS: Oh. Well, a lot was going through my mind. It was shortly there after school ended, and there was a lot of commotion outside and I just heard some screaming outside. I go outside, and I saw Drew on the ground. It was evident his neck was broken. My initial thought was just to get his head stabilized. So, myself and the police liaison worked to stabilize the neck to try to keep it from moving. There’s not really a lot that goes on through your head, but you just kind of react at the moment in time. I just remember standing up — it seemed like it was maybe a half an hour’s worth of time but really it was actually maybe two minutes — and I leaned up against the wall, and my back was just soaked in sweat. I realized at that point in time what was happening and what had just happened.
SCN: What was it like to have Drew’s family be this year’s inspirational family?
NS: It was amazing. I got to know Drew and his family really well. Drew was a football player of mine, an athlete, a student of mine. So getting to know him at that level and being a part of his family and seeing the many changes they’re going through and the difficulties they face on a daily basis, it’s inspirational to see that, and it kind of fuels you on a daily basis. As a founder of this organization, it just kind of gives you a different outlook on life from a teaching perspective and just a day-to-day perspective. You’ve got to appreciate the little things knowing that you’ve got such a strong person in Drew and their family and knowing what they do on a daily basis.
SCN: Last year, the run was the biggest in the Midwest in the month of March. How did the 5K run goes this year? Did it exceed your expectations?
NS: It was also the biggest. It’s been like that for a couple years. It’s been very successful. We’re looking to, as I’ve mentioned before, just keep it going in that direction, to get it to a regional or national level, and try to get these runs going across the nation. We’re just going to see what we can do with it and take it maybe even to Chicago or other cities around the country.
Yeah, absolutely (it exceeded my expectations). There was so much support from the community — from the city of Walled Lake and Novi even and all the participants that came in. It was just a very well organized event from all the volunteers. It exceeded all expectations, absolutely. And any time you can grow on a yearly basis is good, especially the way our economy is and all the different things that are happening in the United States nowadays. It’s nice to know that we got people in the community who are willing to set aside time and money for a good cause.
SCN: What do you hope will be the next step for Passion for Life?
NS: You know, we’ve been sitting down with the Board of Directors and trying to come up with some new ideas. Obviously, the next step in growing it would be to find some companies — like something similar to a LIVESTRONG brand — where we can just try to grow it. We’ve established a website that is a little bit more modern than it was in recent years — www.passion-for-life.org. What we’re trying to do is to just take it to another level with maybe expanding to another location, such as a Chicago run — not this summer but possibly the summer of 2012 and doing something there and seeing where we can go from there. And hopefully we can get a company or some sort of sponsorship like an Under Armour or an Adidas or something like that, that’s willing to put their logo on our brand and our logo. And maybe set aside some spots in department stores like a Dick’s Sporting Goods or a Dunham’s or something like that and have it sit right alongside the LIVESTRONG brand that obviously supports cancer. You can have our organization which is supporting the children’s hospitals of the nation. That would be the overall goal.
SCN: What can people in the lakes area do to help either your organization or the families you sponsor?
NS: Just being a part of the run is obviously enough. We love to see so many people at that event and at all of our events. As I’ve mentioned before we’ve got a golf outing coming up August 6. That’ll be our first event that we’ve done in terms of a golf outing. Being able to donate in that regard or going to our website and donating to those hospitals is enough, you know, in my mind.