There were times in his youth when Nehemiah Cionelo left the dinner table still feeling hungry.
That tends to happen when growing up with two older brothers, and five children sharing the food in a fairly small home in Albuquerque, where the Cionelos were raised on one income.
Cionelo (pronounced cha-neh-low), who will be a redshirt sophomore cross country runner at University of New Mexico in the fall, has thought of those days recently and has sympathized with disadvantaged families who are even more so during the coronavirus pandemic. He has found a way to help and it’s his best way: running.
He has organized Footsteps for Families, a charity event Saturday that will raise money for New Mexican families who have been economically affected by COVID-19.
Over 12 hours, Cionelo, 19, and other participants will run several miles with local businesses and friends donating money for each mile. Cionelo has the goal to run 50 miles in the 12 hours, and as a group, they’re aiming for 1,000 miles.
“I kind of grew up in a low-income family,” Cionelo said. “If I had been born five years later I would have been a 15-year-old in a tough situation during these times. … It would definitely be tough. I wanted to help out with people who are currently going through that situation.”
Cionelo expressed his feelings to Anthony Fleg, a family doctor at UNM Hospital. Fleg first met Cionelo nine years ago when Fleg coached him in the Cougar Track Club and Cionelo developed into an elite race walker.
Fleg wanted to help, too.
“In a way, I wasn’t really surprised that he came up with this idea,” Fleg said. “I have really appreciated his unique ability to be a top-level athlete, but never losing the bigger picture.”
Fleg was grateful to help and called it a wonderful experience to connect Cionelo with others who could help. Fleg also learned of a charity that could connect Cionelo with the cause: Native Health Initiative’s Loving Support Fund. The organization addresses “health inequities through loving service for indigenous youth and communities,” according to its website.
There will also be a school-supplies drive at NHI (at the UNM School of Law building) on Thursday, as well as July 23 and July 30, 3-5 p.m.
“Regardless if school is online or not for a lot of these families … kids will still need supplies,” Cionelo said.
Cionelo learned about the importance of academics at a young age. He was home schooled with brothers, Caleb (now 28) and Gideon (26), and sisters Moriah (24) and Tabitha (18).
It was all part of the plan.
Cionelo’s mother, Denise, who grew up in Gallup, had been a public school teacher, but wanted to raise her children at home, while her husband, Geraldo worked.
Geraldo, from the Philippines, worked as a health and wellness coordinator for the City of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque Police Department.
“There was a time,” Denise said, “when my husband worked for the city of Albuquerque, and so at the Community Center, they were giving out food once and a guy told us, ‘With five kids you could probably qualify to get this food.’ But we didn’t. We never went without.”
Geraldo said his family has always been “blessed.” Nehemiah learned about helping others from his father.
Geraldo helped organize several charity run events for police officers killed in the line of duty, for the homeless, and for the Cougar Track Club.
“We had our struggles when we had five kids,” Geraldo said. “I would say, ‘OK guys, one kid can’t eat all the food. You have to share.’ I managed to be thankful for what we had, and I stressed that to the kids.”
Running has also been very important in Nehemiah Cionelo’s life, especially now. He said he has thought about the uncertainty of the upcoming season. He wants to race, but he knows he will continue to run and be ready, whether there is a season or not.
“Nehemiah has progressed from a very intermediate runner in his freshman year and now he keeps getting better, and better, and better,” UNM coach Joe Franklin said. “His will to be great is not only evident in his running, but also doing extracurricular things like the fundraiser. That was his idea and showed if he puts his mind to something, he does it.”