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After School: Going the Distance

By Net Assets posted 9 days ago


Leadership |

A passion for running expanded into other outdoor pursuits, all of which require endurance that comes in handy on and off the job.

Article by Saundra Sparks, Echo Horizon School 

From the November/December 2019 Net Assets magazine

Feature image: Author Saundra Sparks (center, red) with guides ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2017. Sparks completed the hike to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

I was not adventurous in my youth. I did the things most people did: worked, went to night clubs, stayed out too late and imbibed too much. As I’ve “matured,” I am drawn to simpler things, not the least of which is challenging myself — and my sometimes reluctant body — to try new activities.

I’ve taken on a number of these challenges over the years. I began an affair with running about 30 years ago in New York City. (I know you are all number crunchers, but please don’t do the math). At the time, I was working for an investment research firm, and they asked for volunteers to participate in the Manufacturer’s Hanover Challenge, a 3.5 mile race in Central Park. I had never run in any event before and got swept up in the excitement of my first race. I distinctly remember my first training run, starting out at about a seven-minute mile pace and hitting the wall long before seven minutes elapsed. Rookie mistake. I started training with coworkers and managed to not only finish the race but have fun doing it.

The genius of this race is that the beauty of the course — the most impressive I’ve seen — distracts you from the pain of running some punishing rolling hills.

Most people then and now are faster than I am, but the simplicity of lacing up my running shoes and heading out for a run still nourishes me. Since that first race, I’ve done marathons, half marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, and this past April finished the Big Sur 21-miler. The genius of this race is that the beauty of the course — the most impressive I’ve seen — distracts you from the pain of running some punishing rolling hills. In June I completed another bucket-list race: the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Half in Anchorage. The race was really an excuse to see Alaska. The glaciers, moose, bears, eagles, otters and magnificent Mt. Denali all lived up to my expectations. I’ve found that running is one of the best ways to get to know a city when travelling. I’ve run in Paris; Canmore, Banff and Jasper, Canada; and Tanzania.

In 2010, I moved to Southern California and met new friends who introduced me to cycling, hiking and yoga. They have helped me combine my love of the outdoors with philanthropy, specifically, fundraising for cancer research. In 2017 I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with a group that raised money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Highlights of that unforgettable trip include: as an African American, travelling to a country where I am not a minority; seeing people without running water or electricity live lives full of joy and pride; and the majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro. That mountain humbled me. The hike to the summit took six days and the descent two, which meant seven days sleeping in a two-person tent, without a shower or bath. Porters brought water to wash our faces and brush our teeth each morning. They also cooked, and carried and managed the gear. Our guides kept us motivated, happy and alive, leading us from the start of the hike, where it was 85 degrees and we were all in shorts, to the top of the mountain, where it was about 10 degrees and snowing. I would need another article to talk about that experience more fully, but I will say this: it was life altering.

Aging is not for the faint of heart, and neither is working in the business office of an independent school. We are asked to perform miracles more or less, as we are faced with tight budgets, leadership’s dreams of expansive programs, changing demographics of both the workforce and students, new forms of competition — the list goes on. It requires its own kind of endurance. I have to add, though, that Echo Horizon is my first independent school, and it’s also the first time my work has felt truly rewarding. Every day I get to share smiles with people whose lives I’m impacting. When one of those faces belongs to a four-year-old who just wants a hug from me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Whether it’s pushing through the last mile of a race, summiting a mountain or concluding a long board meeting, endurance efforts help me manage stress and remember there is power in the simple act of moving and being. Hope to see you out there! 

Saundra Sparks is CFO at Echo Horizon School, a 180-student, preschool–grade 6 school in Culver City, California. She was a 2019 recipient of the NBOA Will J. Hancock Unsung Hero award, given to business officers who have made extraordinary contributions to their schools and exemplify exceptional integrity, knowledge and motivation.
We’d love to hear from you! In After School, business officers share a passion or perspective from outside their usual working hours. Want to contribute? Email In the subject line, type AFTER SCHOOL.

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