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5/09/2024 by Denali Lerch

Dawn Jones Leaves a Legacy as Kilometer Kids Pioneer

For the students at International Community School (ICS) in Decatur, Georgia, the end of the school year signals a busy calendar full of Field Days, end-of-year testing and, this year, the Dash at Dawn 5K on May 11 to celebrate the retirement of their beloved Kilometer Kids coach, Dawn Jones.

Originally from Yugoslavia, Jones moved to Georgia in 1999 hoping to teach physical education, for which she had recently received a degree from a Bosnian university. Her desire to teach and connect with young immigrant and refugee children led her in 2002 to the newly opened ICS, whose mission is to educate thousands of refugees who relocated to DeKalb County.

Jones describes herself as "never being able to sit still" as a child and played team sports such as basketball and volleyball. She wouldn't have called herself a runner but realized that the common denominator in those other sports was running and recognized the benefits of the endurance it gave her.

When the school's then-soccer coach approached her about a coaching opportunity for a new program, to be called Kilometer Kids, Jones instantly knew it was an important role to take.

"I remember thinking, 'Running is easy. Anyone can run," she said.

Thus what is now the longest-standing Kilometer Kids program was formed.

From 2007 to May 2024, Jones' voice could be heard on a practice field at ICS twice a week. After years of her leadership, the demand to be in the Kilometer Kids program was so high that practice days were split into two days and separated by age groups.

Her goal as a Kilometer Kids coach and physical education teacher was simple.

"I like to get kids away from the computers and to live more of an active lifestyle," Jones said. "Unfortunately, money plays a role in access to physical education and when budget cuts happen, there's less and less physical education available. That's why I like Kilometer Kids because it's free."

Year after year, Jones has seen her students grow to continue in sports, many of them pursuing cross country and track and field on a competitive level after aging out of Kilometer Kids. Regardless, the kids come away with life lessons.

"She never gives up, and that's really inspiring to me," said Zoe, a 10-year-old ICS student and Kilometer Kid participant. "I'll really miss how much she motivates everyone at ICS, and I hope the next Kilometer Kids coach brings the inspiration Coach Dawn did."

Fellow ICS teachers thought there was no better way to honor Jones' retirement than relaunching and renaming a 5K Jones organized in 2017 called "ICS Runs the World," where groups of students ran to represent different countries and cultures. (ICS is designed to educate refugee, immigrant, and local students together in a community dedicated to mutual learning.) Busy calendars, budget challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the race from becoming an annual affair, but Jones' colleagues were determined to honor her in the most fitting way by re-establishing it as a tribute.

The 5K will take place Saturday at ICS, starting at 8 a.m. with a 5K and followed by a 1K Fun Run option for runners of all ages just as Jones intended. All proceeds will benefit the school, and the 5K is an AJC Peachtree Road Race qualifier.

"My coaching philosophy is to not force kids — I just want them to keep moving forward, it doesn't matter how far or how long," she said. "And kids like to see rewards that motivate them to keep moving forward, and Atlanta Track Club was very helpful with providing incentives for the kids to look forward to."

This isn't the finish line for Jones, though, as she said herself that she "can not sit still" even as an adult.

Going forward, Jones plans to help with the transition to a new Kilometer Kids coach at ICS, do more volunteering for Atlanta Track Club, and practice what she preaches regarding fitness by increasing her walking mileage and playing more tennis.

Her impact has been felt far and wide.

"Our Kilometer Kids program relies on volunteer coaches like Dawn to bring physical activity programming to their community," said Madison Hafitz, senior program manager of Kilometer Kids at Atlanta Track Club. "Dawn has touched the lives of more Kilometer Kids than any other coach who has ever implemented our program."