Most mornings, Sue Sheridan is up before the sun.
She follows a familiar routine: out the door at 5:20 a.m. for a six-mile run, then into the office to handle her responsibilities as director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.
Some would find her training schedule grueling, but Sheridan doesn’t see it that way. It’s a habit with a deeper purpose — and one she won’t give up anytime soon.
Sheridan is more than halfway to a goal to run marathons or half-marathons in all 50 states for the 50 Haitian children her nonprofit, Elevating Haitian Education, is helping put through school. She founded the organization eight years ago and uses the challenge as a way to raise awareness and money for its efforts throughout the year.
“I already had it in my head that I wanted to run in every state,” Sheridan said. “I thought this goal would be a great way to combine both of my passions and draw attention toward an amazing mission.”
Sheridan couldn’t forget what she saw and heard when she first visited La Montagne, Haiti, in 2011. A year had passed after an earthquake devastated the city, and students were learning in rooms without ceilings or walls.
When she met with teachers across the region, they told her about struggles that went beyond the country’s destroyed infrastructure. In Haiti, only 50% of children attend primary school, and 80% fail to reach secondary school. Education isn’t easily accessible due to a lack of public school systems and the high cost of attending private school.
After those conversations, it was clear to Sheridan that she needed to act.
“By our standards, it’s not very expensive to send a child to school in Haiti. It’s $50 to $100 a year for tuition, uniforms and supplies,” Sheridan said. “By having those expenses paid for, children can be ready to learn and not worry about making sure they have what they need year after year.
“So I thought, ‘We’ll start this little effort to put kids through school.’ We started raising some money, and we were able to put 50 kids on track to graduate.”
Today, many of those same 50 children are still pursuing an education, and some have gone beyond a high school level. Sheridan goes back to La Montagne each year to visit them.
“We don’t just send children to school for one year, and then the next year start over with a new group of children,” Sheridan said. “Our goal is to help students complete school and graduate. We’ve got three students in college now, and I’m very excited about that.”
A mile in their shoes
Since 2011, Sheridan has averaged about four races a year, completing marathons or half-marathons in 31 states. This year, she competed in Georgia, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York.
“A lot of the races I’ve run are halves, just because they’re so much easier to recover from,” Sheridan said. “Full marathons, although I love the training aspect, do take more time and are much harder on your body.”
Although she travels frequently for work, Sheridan said she always packs her running shoes for a quick jog. She also combines work trips with races to save on time.
“Now that I’ve done all the states contiguous to Nebraska and within a day’s drive, I have to get on a plane to go wherever I’m going to go to run. So I routinely tie them to trips I’m taking for work,” Sheridan said. “If I’m invited to go to give a talk or go to a conference, or if I have some meetings in a state where I haven’t run before, I will look to see if there are races nearby.”
The perks of running go far beyond helping her nonprofit.
“I ran recreationally for many years, and I just never stopped,” Sheridan said. “Running to me is a passion. It’s a health benefit and a mental respite, and is definitional in many ways. It really allows me to channel my competitive spirit, my drive and my desire to push to that next level.
“You can set personal goals, and it doesn’t matter if all the people around you are finishing well ahead of you. If you run well, feel good, and maybe even set a personal record, that’s what matters. I don’t think there’s any other sport like that.”
Starting Elevating Haitian Education and beginning the 50-state quest wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln community, Sheridan said.
“I so appreciate my colleagues and friends, because they’ve been really supportive of something that’s so personal to me. I can’t even begin to communicate how special it is that not only do people care about what I do at work every day, but they also allow me to express things that are really important to me on a personal level,” Sheridan said. “I think that’s part of what Nebraska’s about.”