Deborah Groeber is a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Achilles International, a track organization that makes it possible for people with disabilities to run, walk, and wheelchair race. Groeber, 57, can only see objects and people from four feet away. She is also partially deaf. She began to lose her vision and her hearing at age 12 due to Stargardt disease. These setbacks have never prevented her from being physically active.
On Saturday mornings, she runs with a fully sighted Achilles guide runner. Then on the other days, she uses a guide that never says no to her when she wants to run – not even at 4:30 AM. This guide is her dog Iris, who she acquired from the New York-based organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind in 2017. Iris, now age 7, is a yellow Labrador Retriever that weighs 55 pounds. Guiding Eyes for the Blind trains certain dogs to run with blind runners while safely guiding them at the same time.
“Iris is great because it’s hard to find a human who would want to get up at 4:30 and run,” said Groeber. Groeber added that she only runs at 4:30 AM on those days when she runs races.
Iris also runs with Groeber and the Achilles guide. Iris runs next to her, while the Achilles guide runs a few feet ahead. The guide tells her when she will need to make a turn or to step to the left or right to avoid a pothole. After hearing the command, Groeber steers Iris in the appropriate direction. “I never had an accident with Iris while running,” said Groeber.
She credits Achilles for helping her to become a runner. She joined the organization in 2016 after walking in a 5K (3.1 miles) race. She was walking faster than some of the slow runners and then decided to join Achilles.
“My goal was to run a 5K before I turned 50 and that was a few months away, so Achilles helped me.” She loved the organization because the people there accepted runners and walkers regardless of their ability. “Achilles enabled me to learn how to run and to improve my physical condition,” said Groeber.
On Sunday, May 21, Groeber will run a few miles of the 2023 Achilles Relay, a 500-mile run, walk, and wheeling journey from Boston to Washington, D. C This is to celebrate Achilles’s 40th anniversary.
The relay starts May 15 and ends May 23. The cities that the relay will cover are Boston, Mass., Bloomfield, Conn, New Haven, Conn, NYC, Englewood, N.J., Philadelphia, Pa, and Washington, D.C. A number of veterans with disabilities plan to run through Washington. Groeber is excited about running in the relay.
Another excited entrant is 30-year-old Kassandra Hernandez of the Philadelphia chapter.
Hernandez was born with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a rare type of inherited eye disorder that causes severe vision loss at birth. “I can only see a few feet away,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez joined the Philadelphia chapter of Achilles in 2017 after friends told her about the organization. She loved it. Hernandez gave a few reasons:
“I love being outdoors. I also love running because it’s helped me through some difficult periods in my life. I also love the sense of accomplishment I get when I complete a race. I’ve also met some really wonderful people and good friends through Achilles.”
Groeber, Hernandez, and the rest of the Achilles members would not have had these opportunities to run and make friends had it not been for dedicated individuals. Here is a brief look at two of them: Melissa Wilcox and Kathryn Chu.
Melissa Wilcox started the Philadelphia chapter of Achilles in 2012. She started out as president of that chapter and still holds that position today.
She was compelled to launch the chapter after she guided a blind runner in an NYC half marathon (13.1 miles) in January 2012. She understood that had it not been for her, that blind runner would have missed out. Then in June of that year, she guided another blind runner at the Achilles annual 4-mile Hope and Possibility Run in Central Park.
“After that race, I decided it would be great to be able to do that more often,” said Wilcox. “I’ve always been a runner; I’ve run many marathons (26.2 miles) and half marathons. Being able to help someone else cross the finish line, someone who couldn’t do it without a guide, had a lot more meaning for me. It was a great feeling to run in support of others. I ran enough races on my own. I was ready to do it for others.”
The first practice was Saturday, September 15 of that year. Only three people showed up to run. There were also a dozen volunteers that day. According to Wilcox, the membership has now quadrupled.
Equally dedicated to Achilles International and one of the key people instrumental in putting on this upcoming relay is Kathryn Chu of NYC, Director of Volunteer Chapters and Special Projects of Achilles International.
When asked why people should even care about Achilles, Chu answered: “Twenty-five percent of the adults in this country live with a disability, and that’s something that’s not talked about often. Half of those people who live with a disability get no aerobic activity, and those people feel lonely and socially isolated.”
Chu elaborated: “A great thing about Achilles is that there’s no requirement for joining. You can be fast or slow. We just celebrate the power of movement.”
Celebrating movement was a key factor that caused Chu to join Achilles two years ago. She was guiding a teenage male Achilles runner in the Hope and Possibility Race. “At various points during the race,” said Chu, “he asked me to step onto the grass and dance with him. He said that he was having so much fun being part of Achilles that he just wanted to dance. We’d move to the side and dance for a few minutes – before stepping back onto the course to finish the 4 miles. It struck me that this was a community that allowed people to be whoever they were.”
According to Chu, Achilles currently has 28 Achilles chapters throughout the U.S, and they are in 19 states and Washington, D.C. There are 34 chapters outside the United States located in 17 countries.
Achilles International is still growing. The relay this month is Achilles’s way of celebrating 40 years of growth and success.
For more information about Achilles, visit www.achillesinternational.org
I am a legally blind freelance reporter and documentary producer/director. I have made eight documentaries, many of which focused on people with disabilities facing adversity. Some of my films won film festival awards and were televised. I earned my Masters' in Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia in 2017.