Solstice Foundation teaches Lakers the value of paying it forward

Katie Reed, a GVSU doctor of physical therapy student, was recently selected as the 2022 Solstice Foundation recipient. The Solstice Foundation encourages students to pay it forward and make an impact on their community. 

Katie Reed
Katie Reed, 2022 Solstice Foundation recipient

The program's origins date back to 2008, when alumni Stephen Leppard and Brandon Gerardy embarked on the AuSable Canoe Marathon. The 120-mile race across northern Michigan came with a goal, not just to finish, but to raise funds to help pay for Josh LeJarett's college. 

LeJarett, one of Leppard's physical therapy patients who has cerebral palsy and is quadriplegic, was about to begin a program at Kalamazoo Community College. Leppard felt inspired by LeJarett and wanted to support his educational goals. 

After completing seven canoe marathons, the team raised enough money to fully cover all educational costs for LeJarett, and he went on to complete his degree in art in new media with a concentration in video game design.

Leppard, '00, is a graduate of GVSU's physical therapy program, and after his experience with LeJarett wanted to devise a way to inspire other physical therapy students to give back.

"When I first graduated PT school, I wanted to be a great physical therapist and help people who came into the clinic. I didn't think as much about helping people outside of the clinic. I didn't have any extra money, and it didn't occur to me the impact I could make in the community," said Leppard.

After discussing his ambitions with friends, they collaborated to create the Solstice Foundation. The foundation strives to promote physical therapy causes, with one of its focuses being students in GVSU's physical therapy program.

The program, now in its fourth year, gives $500 to a GVSU department of physical therapy student which they must then gift to another individual or cause. 

In keeping with Leppard and LeJarret's journey, the recipient must also participate in an activity to create their own ripple effect. Past recipients have held charity softball games or walks, or run in road races.

A group of competitors pose after a race
Katie Reed (center top) celebrates the completion of the SHE RUNS 5k with Savannah Gildea (center bottom).

Reed, who plans to graduate in 2023, first heard about the Solstice Foundation when representatives from the foundation spoke in one of her classes. 

Reed chose to donate the funds to myTEAM TRIUMPH, which is an athletic ride-along program created for individuals who are disabled who wouldn't normally be able to participate in endurance events. She then pushed her friend, Savannah Gildea, during the SHE RUNS 5K on May 1.

"For over 10 years, I have been fortunate to build a friendship with Savannah, who has cerebral palsy," said Reed. "She does not let cerebral palsy define her and I am constantly inspired by her perseverance, tenacity and positivity."

Beyond giving back to the community, the program has gone on to build a community of its own. Joining Reed at the race was a previous Solstice Scholarship recipient, Allyson Schultz, along with a member of the Solstice Foundation. Reed hopes to do the same for future recipients.

For Leppard and LeJarett, their connection has also continued. 

In 2017, Leppard and friends asked LeJarett if he'd like to participate in a different kind of race, the Grand Rapids half-marathon. Using a myTEAM Triumph racing chariot, the Solstice Foundation team pushed LeJarett across the half-marathon's finish line. 

He loved it so much that he asked to do it again - and again. Now, the team has pushed LeJarett in the River Bank Run and the Grand Rapids full-marathon, earning a time which qualified LeJarett for the Boston Marathon. In October 2021, LeJarett earned his first medal from the Boston Marathon.

"People tell me that all the stuff I do for Josh is cool, but really, it goes unrecognized how much he does for me," said Leppard. "The perspective you gain in life when you have the opportunity to have a relationship with someone like Josh - it's a reminder that life is pretty good. We are excited to help provide this growth opportunity for Katie and all the Solstice recipients."

A group of competitors as they finish a race
Stephen Leppard (center top) pushes Josh LeJarett (center bottom) across the finish line of the Grand Rapids marathon.


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