At home

Bella Melendy plays with kids’ paints with her mother, Crystal, sitting behind her at their Keene home in October.

In honor of this year’s beneficiary, organizers of the annual Red Cap Run fundraiser in Keene are visiting local schools to educate students on helmet safety while sledding.

Bella Melendy, 7, of Keene now lives with a traumatic brain injury after she hopped on her sled without a helmet in Marlborough last February, disappeared behind a hill, and was found unconscious by her brother at the tree line.

The incident turned the Melendys’ world upside down — Bella had to wear a neck brace for months, had short-term memory loss and had to stay home from 1st grade for the rest of the year.

Despite her progress and her return to Franklin School this past fall, Bella continues to have days where the injury overwhelms her.

“Physically, Bella looks fine, but a lot of people don’t know what’s going on inside her head,” said her mom, Crystal Melendy, in October. “We don’t know when [the symptoms] will fade out or be gone completely.”

As this year’s recipient of the Red Cap Run — an annual race and walk that benefits local families in crisis — Crystal wanted to use the event’s publicity to bring awareness to the importance of wearing helmets while sledding.

“The first time I ever talked to [Crystal] about potentially being our family for the Red Cap Run, she was really excited about the idea, but mostly because she saw this as an opportunity for helmet education,” said Sara Alderfer, a Keene resident and the run’s director. “She never asked how much money it would raise, but she wanted to do the helmet safety.”

Alderfer and another run member, Christine Nowill, are going into elementary and middle schools in N.H. School Administrative Units 29 and 93 to talk about the issue.

The pair, which started the outreach last week and will continue in the week ahead, is talking to the students about Bella’s story, traumatic brain injuries and the importance of wearing helmets when sledding, biking or skiing.

“I don’t want any parent to have to go through what I went through,” Crystal said last week.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website, wearing a helmet during recreational activities can reduce the risk of a severe head injury and even save your life. During a fall, much of the impact is absorbed by the helmet, rather than your head and brain, the website states.

Students are also asked to participate in a drawing contest, Alderfer said, which makes them eligible for prizes to be given out on race day. The children can draw a design for a helmet or a picture of them doing an activity with a helmet on.

Also on race day — slated for Feb. 8 — members of the Keene Kiwanis Club will be handing out helmets to children, Alderfer said.

“Every opportunity we get to promote the safety of our students goes a long way in prevention. We strive as a community to keep our children safe in school, at home and in the activities they are engaged in,” Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said Thursday morning. “This effort is a good demonstration of a never-ending focus on the overall safety of our children that we all desire.”

Alderfer said it’s “atypical” for the run organizers to be hosting events prior to the race, but they wanted to help Crystal with this cause.

“It makes a lot of sense for the board to pursue it,” she said. “It’s always sad when [the run] is for kids, and I think any time we can bring awareness to something like this, that just seems so preventable, we can make a difference in our community.”

Organized by Body & Soul Runners, a nonprofit group and running club led by Alderfer, the Red Cap Run began as a fundraiser for the family of Keene resident Kenneth C. “Kenny” Valenti Jr., who was killed in a work-related accident in Troy in 2014. Valenti was known for wearing a red hat, inspiring the race’s name.

Alderfer said Bella was one of “five or six” people to be nominated for this year’s race — the highest number of nominees the event has received to date — but the organization’s board of directors still chose her unanimously.

Beneficiaries of the run in past years have been Jennifer J. Goguen McGrail, who had advanced breast cancer; Susan L. Wells, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Lisa Lancey of Richmond, whose husband, Calvin, died in a motorcycle crash that left her with a shattered pelvis; and Aiden Beers, a Sullivan boy who was born with spina bifida and recently had his 12th surgery to help correct the disease’s symptoms.

McGrail and Wells, both of Keene, died in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The sixth annual 5K, which can also be walked, will be held Saturday, Feb. 8, at 10 a.m. in downtown Keene. There will also be a one-mile kids run.

A pre-race celebration, on Friday, Feb. 7, and a post-race celebration will be held at the Courtyard by Marriott Keene Downtown in Railroad Square. The Marriott will donate proceeds from the events’ drink and appetizer sales to Bella’s family.

To register for the Red Cap Run, visit www.runreg.com/red-cap-run

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.