More than anything, Joey Xu loved to run.
For a 10-year-old boy who could do almost anything — from folding origami to playing the violin to building water bottle rockets — running was always a passion.
Even when he was undergoing kidney cancer treatments throughout 2014, Joey's only complaint to his mother was that he couldn’t run.
On Saturday, the Joey’s Wings Foundation hosted Joey’s Run, a 5K run and walk in Westside Recreation Center, to honor Joey's passion and raise research funds for the cancer that ended Joey's running nearly four months ago. About 500 people, including Joey's friends, doctors and William S. Talbot Elementary classmates, ran or walked in his memory.
Joey's mother, Kathy Liu, 39, began organizing the event soon after her son passed away on Nov. 26 — a day before Thanksgiving — from a rare form of kidney cancer, in UF Health Shands Hospital. She said she organized the event because Joey's birthday and cancer diagnosis were both in March.
“We just want people to know about this cancer,” Liu said. “It made my heart hurt to know how little funding we have. We deserve more money.”
As the run began at 9:30 a.m., runners sped past hanging chains of origami cranes, some folded by Joey. Some of his artwork printed on cards and calendars was for sale with proceeds going to pediatric kidney cancer research.
At the same time Joey’s Run began, about 200 runners in the San Francisco Bay Area — where Joey's family lived for a couple years — began running either a 10K or 20K distance over the course of two days in his honor. Liu said she never expected such a large turnout, and she knew Joey would have loved it.
“Joey would say ‘Oh mommy, this is so cool,’” Liu said. “'All these people with my name on their shirts.'”
Having donated Joey's corneas for transplant surgery, Liu said her family knew he was watching.
“He’s watching and cheering,” she said. “He’s very proud of his friends, his school.”
Many of Joey's classmates and teachers from Talbot Elementary, doctors from Worthington Pediatrics and friends from church were at the run.
“It’s almost like you feel his energy here with all these people,” said Anna Guarino, 34, Joey's fourth-grade teacher. “I feel his spirit is alive.”
While Liu hopes to create a benefit concert in addition to the annual run, many of the runners couldn’t imagine a better way to remember Joey.
“This is the epitome of Joey,” April Tisher, 37, said. “This is the perfect way to remember him.”
As she ran with her 10-year-old son, Andrew, she said they joked about how Joey would have passed them by then.
Andrew, who had been in Joey's class at Talbot every year from kindergarten to fifth grade, said he never got the chance to run a race with his best friend.
“He would’ve wanted to run the race,” Andrew said. ”I would ask him to run one more race with me.”
But even as he ran alone, Andrew said he knew his friend was running with him.
[A version of this story ran on page 1 - 4 on 3/16/2015 under the headline “‘Joey’s Run’ 5K honors life of Gainesville boy”]
Talbot Elementary School students and Gainesville community members begin running during Joey’s Run Saturday morning at Westside Recreation Center. The run was hosted by Joey’s Wings Foundation in memory of 10-year-old Joey Xu, who passed away from a rare form of kidney cancer in November.