Becoming Better, Not Bitter

October 13, 2011

After a losing his baby daughter to an undiagnosed brain tumor, Good Neighbor Award finalist Mark Meinhardt poured his grief into helping others.

By Barbara Ballinger

One moment Sophie Grace Meinhardt was a rambunctious 17-month-old, who walked early, was starting to talk, and tried to keep up with three older sisters.

Out of the blue, she became ill and vomited on the way to a family vacation. A week later she couldn’t walk. A CAT scan revealed a massive brain tumor. She was airlifted home to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC). Before her operation in 2006, her parents, Mark and Missy Meinhardt, kissed her and said a prayer. The doctors began operating, but couldn’t stop the bleeding. She never woke up. The Meinhardts buried their youngest daughter five days later on her 18-month birthday, just 13 days after she took ill.

“Sophie never had a chance,” says Meinhardt, crs, who has been a REALTOR® for 24 years, the last 20 at Star One, Realtors®, Inc., the company his late father George founded. The tragedy might have felled the family’s will to live joyously. But Meinhardt, now 48, was determined to help fund a cure and memorialize Sophie.

Meinhardt’s love for Missy and their daughters, his deep religious beliefs, and his need to give back to a community that wrapped its arms around his family after Sophie died, inspired his charitable 5K race in her memory, Sophie’s Angel Run. “Our family loves running. We decided a race would give us a way to raise money for research and heighten awareness, so other children wouldn’t die needlessly,” Meinhardt says.

In addition to raising money for research, Meinhardt had two other missions in mind as he planned that first race: Fund scholarships for 7th grade Catholic-school students in Sophie’s memory and organize a way for family and friends to grieve. He also had one private goal: To help his wife Missy, a former teacher, regain her spirit. “I plunged back into my work. My daughters were in school. But every morning after we left home, Missy was still there, and Sophie’s bedroom was empty. It was terrible. I needed to get her involved in something,” he says.

For Sophie, no treatment had been possible. “They told us she had less than a 1 percent chance of survival even if she survived the operation,” Missy says. The race gave her a way to look forward rather than back. “Life’s about making choices. We chose to make things better, rather than be bitter, and give our other children good memories.”

Off and Running

Mark approached the race as he would a business transaction. As director, he wrote a detailed plan, set goals, planned the course, crafted an inspirational message, solicited sponsors and donors, and established committees. Missy became administrative chairperson, implementing her husband’s “wild ideas” and overseeing details.

By piggybacking on to their church’s Oktoberfest, they had a jump-start. “We hoped people would come to the festival after Mass and stay for the run,” Mark says. His goal was to attract 300 to 400 runners the first year. More than 1,250 registered.

In its fifth year, the race has raised a total of $250,000 for research to discover a cure for Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor, the rare aggressive cancer that killed Sophie. Similar tribute races often lose steam after a few years. Not so with Sophie’s Angel Run. This year’s race, held on Sept. 25, attracted 2,450 participants and more than 150 volunteers—and Meinhardt estimates that, when all receipts are counted, the race will have raised $60,000.

The Ripple Effect

Two years ago the Meinhardts set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Meinhardt credits Facebook with spreading the word. One photo album on Facebook—titled, “Oh, the places she will go”—is filled with photos, taken around the world, of people in their Sophie’s Run t-shirts. The Meinhardts encourage those who purchase a race T-shirt to wear it on vacation and post a photo.

Sophie’s Run participants laud Meinhardt for his outgoing, positive personality, organizational skills, and inclusive family approach that attracts many in their West Side community. “It’s a grassroots effort for all ages and has reinforced the idea that you can make a difference through volunteerism,” says Lori Deters, who has increased participation from her church and its school since her involvement three years ago.

“The event gets better and better with its festival and family atmosphere,” says Lars Wagner, associate professor of clinical pediatrics in the division of neuro-oncology at CCHMC. And the funds have made a difference. “More is becoming known [about the tumors] and how best to treat these patients, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” says Dr. Wagner.

Meinhardt became an unexpected mentor when a family in Cleveland, who lost another Sophie at age 3, approached him for guidance. “They were going to do a 5K fund-raiser for brain tumor research like we did,” says Meinhardt. “We gave them information on how to structure the race, gain corporate sponsors, form committees.

“We also offered compassionate support and ended up participating in each other’s races,” says Meinhardt. “They showed us that by doing our event, we are affecting people in a positive way. Drop a pebble in the water, and the ripples go much farther than you think.”


 

Contact Mark Meinhardt atStar One, Realtors®, mmeinhardt@starone.com, and Sophie’s Angel Run atwww.sophiesangelrun.org or http://www.facebook.com/SophiesAngelRun.
 


 

Mark Meinhardt is one of 10 finalists for REALTOR® Magazine's Good Neighbor Awards, a grant program that recognizes REALTORS® who make exceptional volunteer contributions to their communities. We’ll bring you the story of one of the finalists each day until October 20. On October 21, online voting will open for a Web Choice Award. The top vote getter will receive a $500 gift card from Lowe's. Votes will be accepted through October 28. 

Of the 10 Good Neighbor finalists, the five winners will be named on November 2. (Web Choice voting does not play a role in the selection of the winners.) The winners will receive $10,000 grants for their community projects and $2,500 Lowe's gift cards and will be honored at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Anaheim on November 12. The remaining five finalists will receive $2,500 grants for their cause and $1,000 Lowe's gift cards.

The Good Neighbor Awards is supported by Lowe’s and HouseLogic.
 


 

Read Other Published Profiles of the 2011 Finalists: