A unique invention has transformed a Co Down teenager's life: Allowing him to take part in running events, even though he can't walk
'Aaron has always been a smiler, but since we got that chair his smile has got that bit bigger'. Stephanie Bell reports.
He has never been able to walk, but teenager Aaron Kerr is fast becoming one of the most popular participants in running events across Northern Ireland.
The 17-year-old is the first person in Europe to take delivery of a unique invention which, for some time, has been transforming the quality of life of disabled people in America - the Hoyt Running Chair.
Pushed by his dad David and with mum Sandra running alongside, Team Kerr have become a familiar sight along local highways and byways in recent months as they train and take part in running events across the country.
For the teenager, from Annahilt, Co Down, whose life has been severely restricted by complex special needs, the simple freedom of being able to take up a sport, with the added bonus of sharing it with his parents, has transformed the quality of his life.
Passers-by can't help but get caught up in the family's joy as a beaming Aaron whizzes by, his excitement clear for all to see in his happy face.
Dad David explains what it has meant for all the family since they first took delivery of the chair following a fundraising campaign last year: "We are now able to spend quality time together as a family, while staying fit and meeting some wonderful people along the way.
"Before, during and after our runs we get handshakes, high fives, shout-outs and congratulations. We have been told that we are an inspirational family. We have met and continue to meet so many wonderful people. We have visited some fantastic places and experienced things we never thought possible.
"All of those are very good reasons and we are immensely grateful for them all, but there is one overriding factor in all of this that pushes us on, that makes us finish that final mile or get over that last hill.
"Although he might not always show it, and can find it hard to express his feelings, we as parents know that inside, our son is at his happiest with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face."
Life has been a challenge for Aaron from birth. As well as being physically disabled he also has learning difficulties and needs round the clock care.
His mum Sandra (43), who works in a day centre for adults with learning difficulties, was Aaron's full-time carer up until four years ago.
Aaron had become too big for her to handle alone and she returned to work while David (41) gave up his job as a courier to take over the role of caring for their son.
The couple also have a 20-year-old daughter, Holly. Together, they came through a tough year when Aaron was 13 and needed a kidney transplant.
His parents had known from birth that a kidney defect meant that a transplant would be inevitable at some stage in their son's life.
When it became crucial for Aaron to receive the life-saving surgery, David was relieved to be a suitable match and able to donate one of his kidneys.
Father and son came through the surgery with no complications and Aaron has been thriving ever since.
"It was getting to the stage when he needed dialysis, which would have been difficult for someone with his complex needs, so they decided to go for a transplant," says David.
"I got tested and was found to be a perfect match. It wasn't something I needed to think about. He is my son and I would do anything for him. If he is smiling, then I am smiling. Nothing was guaranteed but thankfully his results were fine and all his check-ups since have been good."
Aaron is a pupil of Parkview School in Lisburn, but because of his many needs life outside of school can be fairly isolating.
He cannot attend events like other young people his age and his parents were keen to find something he could enjoy and which would get him out of the house.
Searching Google for ideas last year, they came across the wonder of the Hoyt Running Chair, which seemed the perfect solution as Sandra was already a keen runner.
"My wife has been running for a number of years and Aaron and I would watch from the sidelines," says David. "When we found the chair online we knew it would be a great way to get Darren out and allow us to share something as a family.
"It cost £4,000, so we started to fundraise and did a lot of sponsored walks. Friends and strangers helped us out and we finally were able to get the chair last October."
The Hoyt Running Chair is legendary in America, where it was designed by Massachusetts man Dick Hoyt so that his son Rick could fulfill his dream of taking part in running events.
Rick (52) was diagnosed at birth as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. In 1977, he told his father that he wanted to participate in a five-mile benefit run for a lacrosse player who had been paralysed in an accident, and Dick agreed to push Rick in his wheelchair.
After the race, Rick told his dad that taking part in it had made him feel like he wasn't disabled. He has gone on to take part in over 1,000 races, including marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions.
However, Dick and Rick needed a new running chair with enhanced comfort and performance exceeding all the other equipment they had used over 33 years of competitions. So, in 2010, Dick asked Southbridge Tool & Manufacturing if they could take on the challenge. Team Hoyt was so impressed with the results that they endorsed the chair by calling it The Team Hoyt Running Chair.
The chair is custom-built to suit the size and needs of the individual and, although now massive in America, it is still relatively unheard of elsewhere.
Aaron is not only the first person to take delivery of the running chair in Northern Ireland but his dad believes it is a first for the whole of Europe.
It is David's hope that it will be the first of many here and that the freedom Aaron has enjoyed through taking up his new sport will be shared by many more people in the province.
"What is really important to us is breaking attitudes and encouraging inclusivity for disabled people," he says. "There is still a lot of stigma and people aren't sure sometimes how to treat disabled people.
"We knew when we started out with the running chair it would take people time to adjust as it was something so different and we are delighted to say the running world has welcomed us with open arms.
"It means that disabled people can experience that thrill of crossing the finishing line. Aaron loves it and the faster we go the more excited he gets.
"The chair is specially designed to be lightweight and easy to run with. Aaron just wants to be in it all the time."
Since they took delivery of the chair last October, there has been no stopping Team Kerr, and their very first race was just a week later in Portsmouth. Sandra has signed up for the 25th anniversary of the Great South Run and Aaron and David have joined her in order to complete their first 10km race.
Since then they have taken part in around 20 events, which include 5k, 10k and 10-mile runs.
This weekend they will be running a half marathon in Westmeath and such has been the welcome from the running fraternity that the Marathon Club of Ireland has, for the very first time, offered to adjust the route of the race to offer Aaron an alternative to a section of rough terrain, in order to accommodate his chair.
To prepare for events, the family train with Aaron at least twice a week, weather permitting, and Sandra and David complete an additional two training runs alone each week.
"It's fantastic. It has changed our lives for the good," says David. "It is physically demanding looking after Aaron and it's important that I keep in shape and Team Kerr allows me to do that as well as spending quality time together as a family.
"Lack of mobility really can restrict what you can do as a disabled person, as there are not a lot of options out there, and in this area society still has a lot of work to do.
"Aaron is immune susceptible, which has always made it difficult for him to get out and about as he picks up bugs easily. Getting him out in the fresh air really seems to have helped his overall health.
"He has always been a smiler but since we got the chair his smile has got that bit bigger. He is always ready for a run and when we are finished he wants to go round again.
"Unfortunately people are not as aware as they could be about disabled people and if we can change attitudes then that is fantastic, too.
"People tend to talk past them or over them but not at them and life can be quite difficult in that sense.
"I know people don't realise they are doing it and with the running chair we are now seeing the opposite. People are high-fiving Aaron and just seem to be delighted that he is taking part and enjoying himself. It is making a difference and we are delighted by that."
Having seen the improvement in the quality of his son's life David is now keen that it catches on across Northern Ireland and hopes that eventually we will follow the lead of the US and make it a sport of its own.
"In America, they have their own race series for these chairs which is what ideally I would love to see here," he says.
"Online you can see pictures of five or 10 chairs lined up at the starting line and it would be fantastic to see that opportunity available to people here.
"If people are interested in the chairs and need any more information or help they can get in touch with us through our website and I would be glad to help.
"We are fortunate that we have a van which is great for transporting the chair but a new collapsible model which can easily fit into the boot of a car is currently being developed which will make a massive difference."
As team Kerr blaze a trial for disabled people David is hoping that local companies will come on board an sponsor them to help ease the burden of cost.
- Anyone who would like to help can contact him via www.teamkerr.net
Pair with designs on success
Disabled American marathon runner Rick Hoyt underwent spinal surgery in 2010 which made his wheelchair very uncomfortable and painful for him
It was then that his father Dick asked Southbridge Tool and Manufacturing company if they could design a new chair
With just six weeks to come up with something they had never designed before, the company exceeded all expectations with the Team Hoyt Running Chair
Countless revisions and design changes were carried out, with both Rick and Dick's help, to improve both comfort and performance
The result was a chair with reclined design and 1 1/2ins thick high density memory foam for the comfort of the person sitting in it, plus adjustable handle bars for the person pushing it
If you don't have £4,000 to spend on a chair, www.teamhoytrunningchairs.com offers help with setting up and running a fundraising campaign to enable you to get one