With Thanksgiving Day looming, Diane Johnson will again join family and friends for a pre-turkey trot to help those in need this holiday season.
Her ever-expanding squad plans a Sunday reunion for the 29th annual fundraising run benefiting the longtime charity God’s Love We Deliver, with “Team Wright” — named for her late husband — raising $9,000 this year for the cause.
“It’s always such a great day,” said Johnson, who was among the runners at the first “Race to Deliver” event back in 1993. “I usually don’t get a good night’s sleep the night before, because I’m so excited. It’s kind of like Christmas.”
Johnson, 64, will be joined by son Woody and daughter Louise as her group assembles nearly three decades after her then-little boy ran in the pee-wee race and his younger sister appeared in a stroller for the initial run. The son is now 34, and his sibling age 30.
This year’s squad even includes a California friend who intends to raise money virtually by running in their back yard with her husband and their dog. The New York runners and walkers will cover a 4-mile stretch of Central Park.
“It’s really such a heartwarming moment every time I see Diane,” said Karen Pearl, the organization’s president and CEO. “It’s like being back home. It’s kind of amazing, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”
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Johnson’s ties to the fund-raising organization stretch back decades, to when her menswear designer husband Lee Wright served on the group’s board of directors before his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in September 1988. He died three weeks later, with Johnson stepping up to fill his role on the board and running now to keep his memory alive.
“This is a celebration of his life,” she said. “He died young, at 39, but I don’t think there’s anything he missed doing. He led a full rich life.”
God’s Love was founded two years earlier by Ganga Stone and Jane Best, who started the organization by delivering 50 meals a week to home-bound AIDS victims. The numbers have only grown in the years since: The group prepares and delivers medically-tailored free daily meals to more than 10,000 clients in some of New York’s neediest neighborhoods.
Johnson remembers befriending Stone after volunteering to help out in January 1987, when fund-raising more typically involved volunteers collecting donations in cans. But the message of love and helping the less fortunate remains unchanged and Stone remains an inspiration — even as Johnson has become one, too.
“It’s kind of amazing, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate her,” said Pearl. “Not just her volunteering, but she carries so much history.”
The Team Wright participants will return after the race to Johnson’s Manhattan home for quiche, although their leader acknowledges they might need to wait a bit.
“I am such a slow runner,” she said with a laugh. “I’m always in the back. But I always get some good cheers.”