When Elaine Hotelling gave birth to her and husband Wayne’s first child in 1963, they quickly realized all was not right with their daughter, whom they named Laurel. Laurel’s doctor told the Hotellings that their daughter had Down syndrome, a genetic condition that can result in cognitive disabilities. And when the doctor told Wayne and Elaine that the best thing they could do for themselves and Laurel would be to place her in an institution and forget about her, the Hotellings immediately knew what to do.
Instead of sending Laurel to live in an institution, Wayne and Elaine raised their daughter themselves. They eventually had three other children, and Laurel enjoyed the same opportunities and activities as her siblings. Wayne and Elaine provided a home environment in which Laurel was treated like everyone else – because in every important sense, Laurel was like everyone else. Growing up, Laurel made friends with other kids in her neighborhood. She took piano and dance lessons. She played sports. And as an adult, she got a job at The Resource Center’s Dunkirk Work Center, where she worked for more than 30 years.
Wayne and Elaine often say that through the experience of raising Laurel, they became better people. So in honor of her, they created Laurel Run in 1997 as a way of celebrating the achievements of Laurel and all persons with disabilities. For that inaugural event, Wayne, a retired schoolteacher, set out to jog more than 400 miles across New York State, from the Pennsylvania line near Lake Erie to the Massachusetts border. A leg injury sustained after the first few days derailed Wayne’s plan, but he wasn’t about to give up – after resting his leg to give it time to heal, he borrowed a bicycle and made up the lost time. Enabling him to finish on schedule. Accompanying him the entire way was Elaine, who served as her husband’s support crew and occasionally walked some hills that were too steep for Wayne to pedal, in order to officially log the miles.
Laurel Run was meant to be just a onetime event, but the event attracted so much attention across the State that a second Laurel Run was held in 1998. In 1999, Laurel Run truly became a State-Wide event, with eight different routes starting at separate points throughout the Empire State, with the routes converging in Albany for the final day. More than 20,000 people took part in Laurel Run that year, with the event passing through every county in New York.
Because of the Hotellings’ determination, Laurel Run has continued as an annual event. Since 2001, it has been a two-day event – Day 1 consists of a relay run from Jamestown to Dunkirk, while Day 2 takes place in the Hotellings’ hometown of Silver Creek and includes an 8-kilometer running race, a 5-kilometer fitness walk, a 1-kilometer fun walk, children’s fun runs, a motorcycle dice run, and a party in the Village Square. The signature event is Laurel’s Lap, in which anyone with a disability is invited to take a lap around the track at the village ballfield. Laurel’s Lap gives people with disabling conditions their moment in the sun, and onlookers have shed more than a few tears as they cheer people across the finish line.
Proceeds from Laurel Memorial Run & Walk are directed to the Laurel Run Fund at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation. Money from the fund supports TRC’s disability awareness, prevention and early intervention efforts. Money raised through Laurel Run also is used to enhance employment and work training opportunities for adults with disabilities like Laurel, so that they may become productive, contributing members of society and experience the feelings of pride and satisfaction that come from earning real wages for performing meaningful work.
Laurel was proud to be the Grand Marshal of Laurel Run. Sadly, she passed away in 2017 at the age of 54. But the event that bears her name continues, and we hope you’ll join us this year to remember Laurel and to celebrate the achievements of people with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
Here’s a video of Laurel playing the piano: