First, the hard part.
Lisa Parlette was in Wilmington, Ohio, on May 9, 2015, because her daughter, Jenna, would have graduated from Wilmington College that day. She would have donned a cap and gown and accepted a diploma and, maybe, shared a few tears and hugs with the cross country teammates with whom she had shared so many miles. But Jenna wouldn’t do any of that because, as a story in the summer 2014 issue of Champion details, she fell in a field in Franklin, Indiana, only a few yards away from her first college cross country win. She died days later, victimized by an undetected genetic disorder.
So Lisa, not her daughter, would be the one making a short walk to accept a diploma. The day was packed with even more emotion than she had anticipated. Lisa’s father, Charles, who had been in the field the day Jenna fell and longed to come to the graduation to honor the granddaughter he lost, died the day before the ceremony. As Lisa stood in front of her daughter’s teachers, coaches, teammates and friends to accept the honorary degree, the emotion of the moment clouded her vision; only later did she learn that every one of the hundreds of people in the room had stood and cheered.
“I want my daughter back,” she says. “It’s been hard.”
But sadness is only a sliver of Jenna’s story. She once told her mother she hoped to inspire at least one person by running through the pain and uncertainty caused by the genetic disorder.
She has. Again and again.
Lisa launched the Jenna Parlette Memorial Foundation shortly after Jenna’s death. Its goal is twofold: Raise enough money to build an indoor track – the Jenna Parlette Running Center – on or near Wilmington’s campus, and fund scholarships for students at Miamisburg High School in Ohio, where Jenna was a star runner.
The foundation organizes an annual 5K in Miamisburg that draws hundreds of participants and spectators. This summer, it held its inaugural golf outing. Over three years, the foundation has funded $5,000 in scholarships for Miamisburg students, and has donated socks and blankets to those in need. The track facility fund has made incremental progress – about $25,000 raised so far – but Lisa hopes to secure a gift from a major donor.
Wilmington's new center for sport sciences features a memorial to Jenna, and the school hosts an annual #JennaStrong Fall Classic cross country meet. The 2015 event drew nearly 700 competitors. Wilmington student-athletes across several sports, even those who never met her, wear wristbands or pins bearing Jenna’s name on their uniforms throughout the year.
While the foundation has steadily made headway, Jenna’s enduring impact is subtler. Three years after her daughter fell, Lisa still receives regular emails and photos from strangers. They don’t come from mourners or well-wishers, but people Jenna has inspired to run: a pair of fathers in New Jersey who ran a race with #JennaStrong scrawled in marker on their forearms; a trio of girls who never ran until they heard about Jenna but completed a half-marathon wearing purple shirts honoring her; a 70-year-old woman who heard Jenna’s story and ran her first 5K; a former teammate-turned-coach whose runners painted a mural of Jenna at their school after they heard about her life and death.
“It goes on and on, and on and on,” Lisa says. “A lot of people run for Jenna because Jenna’s not running now.”