After Cindi and Gary Aboud’s 14-year-old son died in 2007, they formed the Braden Aboud Memorial Foundation in his memory.
The foundation and its signature event, the annual Braden Aboud Memorial Run/Walk, have grown far beyond anything they ever imagined. But as impressive as the numbers are – $1.5 million returned to the community so far – the couple’s impact is often much quieter.
Most months, sometimes more often, they get a call from somebody who has lost a child or other family member. Some ask if they should start a foundation and how to be successful at it.
“People want to know how you can breathe again,” Aboud said.
Learn to breathe again is what Aboud and her husband had to do after their son, Braden, died in a skiing accident in Ruidoso about 11 years ago.
Braden’s friends and family rallied to put on the first run/walk. Inspired by the race’s success, the couple formed the foundation in memory of their son. Among the first contributions: Braden’s college fund.
“Grief does not go away,” Aboud said. “It takes on a different shape through the years.”
Over the past decade, the foundation has put 7,500 pairs of new Nike shoes on children’s feet, handed out 30,000 blankets and awarded about $100,000 in college scholarships.
It also partners with the city of El Paso to fund swim lessons and after-school programs.
In May, a record 11,500 people came out for the 12th annual Braden Aboud Memorial Run/Walk. It is the largest of its type in the Southwest and one of the largest “youth-centered races” in the nation.
The foundation is all-volunteer and guided by a 39-member board. Aboud, who is executive director, does not take a salary.
When Aboud was 10 she moved with her family from San Diego to El Paso, where her dad had a franchising opportunity with Taco Bell.
“So that’s what I did: lived in a Taco Bell,” she said, laughing.
Aboud, 60, graduated from Eastwood High School and earned a degree in education from the University of Texas at El Paso. At college, one of Aboud’s roommates introduced her to Gary, her future husband.
Gary, a native El Pasoan, operates a mediation and arbitration practice in El Paso.
Cindi sat down with El Paso Inc. at the foundation’s cozy offices in Placita Santa Fe and talked about grief, how Braden’s death led to the creation of the foundation and what has made the run/walk so successful.
Email Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 143.
Q: How’d the foundation come to be?
In 2007, our son Braden, nicknamed B, was an eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle School. He was an athlete and loved anything that had a ball like most kids do. He was very charismatic, outgoing and friendly.
Braden was an exceptional kid and an ordinary kid all at the same time. He just had an exceptional way of meeting people, getting to people and including people in his circle. I guess his life was celebrated so much after he lost it because he just crossed all barriers.
Braden had snow skied since he was 5 years old. We took a group to Ruidoso at the beginning of February in 2007. Braden fell on an intermediate slope and hit his head on hard ice. At first, we thought nothing was going to happen; we thought it was a concussion.
They airlifted him to El Paso, and he did not make it. He had a brain bleed, and that’s why he passed away that night.
Q: What happened next?
My husband, Gary, and I were just very overwhelmed. Our daughter was a junior at Coronado High School at the time. Your life just kind of stops.
The week after he died was eye-opening. Literally, thousands of people came through our home. His funeral had more than 2,500 people at it. We don’t know why. We know a lot of people, but not like that. We couldn’t even walk through our house because there were so many flowers.
My parents had the good sense to go down and open a memorial fund, and within a few weeks, there was $45,000 in it. People we didn’t even know were contributing to it.
About two or three weeks after, there was a girl at the school who went to the principal and said, “I think that we should do something to remember Braden, and I think we should have a run/walk.” Family and Braden’s friends came together to do it. Nobody knew a thing about running.
The race was put together with a core group of 20 to 30 people that are still with us today – almost every single one of them. Braden went to Zach White Elementary. That’s where the race still is today.
We had no idea how many kids were going to come to this. There were 1,100 people who showed up for the race.
Q: What did it mean for you and your husband to have that many people show up?
It was a fog. We couldn’t believe it. That race netted probably another $50,000. So by this time, we had to decide what we were going to do with all this. Gary and I, being three or four months out from a loss, thought that there was some meaning behind it – a greater power that was pushing us in a direction to do something.
Q: I noticed you’re wearing a cross necklace.
I say that God is the one who has taken this on, and we just manage it for him. That’s the truth.
Braden was very into his faith. He wasn’t preaching on the playground, but he got it. There really is a driving force of good behind this that is helping people.
Q: How did you all come up with “B Strong”?
It came about because Braden’s nickname was B.
Braden’s girl cousin who is his exact age said, I think we need a logo for this, something that has meaning that nobody else has.
Gary had the foresight of trademarking it – thank goodness, because we have a lot of stories about that.
We formed a board, a little bit bigger than the original 20 or 25 who organized the first race, and Gary and I took it on. We got nonprofit status.
Braden’s class took on a blanket drive. That was an idea that Braden had wanted to do, so they formed the first blanket drive at Coronado High School.
Q: What makes the foundation unique?
The foundation has always been 100-percent volunteer. Sometimes families put themselves in charge of foundations and people wonder: Are they going to pay themselves?
Q: Who tracks the finances, files the tax forms and all that stuff?
We have wonderful volunteers on our board. We have accountants and many others on the board who represent a broad spectrum of the community. We have one paid part-time office staff member who assists in clerical duties.
Q: When did the foundation hit the $1-million mark?
Probably about three years ago. Now we are at $1.5 million that has been returned to the community. That’s in-kind and monetary donations.
So after that first year, the race began to grow. We were advised by somebody on our board who said, “You know Cindi, as soon as Braden’s class graduates from high school, I can see the numbers going down because the race is really tied to the people who knew Braden. You need to tie it to something people can latch on to besides his name.”
So in the fourth or fifth year, we decided to make it a fundraiser for the schools. That’s when it started spreading. It’s always been $10 for kids under 19 and $20 for adults. We’ve never raised it.
Schools, teams and organizations that attend in groups receive grant money for their participation. Polk Elementary came with 750 kids to the race this year, so they received back $7,500.
Everybody needs funding; they need instruments, uniforms and travel funds. That’s why the race exploded in numbers and we could get a big sponsor. Jack in the Box has been our national sponsor for five years at least. And Oscar Leeser with Hyundai of El Paso has been a great friend to the foundation.
Q: How did the foundation have to adapt to the growth?
I have a lot of people that will come to me who want to start foundations after they lose children.
Part of the grieving process for us – the healing – was to give back. It’s a great idea, but it wasn’t conceived overnight and didn’t happen overnight.
We’re hands-on in the trenches; we don’t just write checks. Our board physically puts shoes on kids’ feet; they take off the socks and put on the shoes. They’re also running around handing out blankets during the blanket drive.
This has become more than just about Braden, and I think that is how it survived.
Q: How has the foundation helped you through the grieving process?
I stock books back here on going through grief. After we lost Braden, I read everything I could get my hands on because I thought there are other people who have traveled this road before me, and I knew I wasn’t alone. So I tried to learn from that.
People still call me probably monthly to come in after they have lost a child or they want to talk about grief with me. Sadly, life is not always what we planned it to be.
I would say monthly. People want to know how you can breathe again. Gary and I never thought our life would take a turn like this.
Q: What do you tell people when they call?
Grief is something that’s very hard to hold at the beginning. The shape of it changes so that it doesn’t weigh you down as much, but it’s always there. That’s about as easy as I can put it.
There are choices. You can stay in the deep end, or you can swim. Gary and I had a very strong marriage, thank goodness, and a daughter to live for, family to live for, friends to live for. Pretty much Gary and I turned to each other and said we are going to live on; we are going to take him with us. I feel like Braden left a huge part of him behind in both of us.
Q: How does the foundation reflect who Braden was?
We center around pink. It’s bizarre, but Braden was supposed to be a girl. We had baby showers for a girl. Then, he came out a boy.
Q: I bet that was a surprise.
A big surprise. He had an affection for pink shirts – pink polos. He’d tell his friends real men wear pink. So that’s how the foundation’s pink thing came to be.
What’s really cool is that some of Braden’s high school buddies, who are all now out of college, they join us year after year. A group will be out there helping put on the race, getting out of bed at 5:30 in the morning. They embrace him.
Q: How does the size of the run/walk fundraiser compare to others around El Paso and around the country?
We’ve looked into it some. I can’t tell you it is the largest kids competitive youth race in the nation, but I can’t find one that is a chip-timed youth competitive race that is this size. It is definitely the largest race between Dallas and Phoenix.
Q: What’s next?
We are not trying to grow our programs anymore as much as we are trying to fund other people’s programs. We were 48 when this happened. I am now 60.
We’re not tired, but we don’t want to tire out our entire board. They are very connected to us through our projects and then we are trying to find other projects to fund around El Paso.
We are always looking for sponsors.
The foundation is really blessed. We just keep going because it is obviously doing the right thing.
I cannot emphasize enough that it could not have happened without these 39 people coming together on our board.