Members Who Inspire

Showrunners: Couple's friendly fundraising competition launches marathon event to benefit legal aid

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Crystal and Michael Freed

Photo courtesy of Crystal and Michael Freed.

Buoyed by the success of the first Freed to Run event, JALA approached the Freeds with a proposition. JALA is part of the Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, which provides legal services to more than 200 pediatric patients a year.

These could range from ensuring a family is able to build a ramp to make their home accessible for their child’s wheelchair to making sure a child receives the health care accommodations at school that they’re entitled to under federal law.

The legal aid organization discovered that if it established an endowment for the NFMLP and raised $1 million over the next five years, the Baptist Health Foundation would provide 125 percent matching funds to bring the total to $2.25 million.

JALA asked the Freeds if they would make Freed to Run an annual event and the main fundraiser for the endowment. “Michael and his wife, Crystal, have a particular affinity for this issue,” Kowalski says.

“I do a lot of legal work in the health care community, so I’m very appreciative of what the health care community does to make our community a better place, particularly for pediatric patients and folks that can’t necessarily afford to pay their way,” Michael says.

JALA combined what Michael raised in his first year with its own funds to put $100,000 toward that $1 million target, and they began planning for Freed to Run’s second year.

“The very first thing they said—particularly the serious runners—was ‘Yeah, we’re not doing this in May or June.’ And that’s when we started looking at dates,” Michael says. The planning committee settled on Dec. 2 to 7. “December is that giving month, where people are focused on doing for others in particular,” he says.

Rather than asking people to repeat Michael’s 2017 feat of six marathons in six days, Freed to Run 2.0 will be completed this year in relay teams of up to 12 members, with runners completing a few miles each. Michael wants to recruit at least three teams for each day of the event and is asking each team to raise $10,000. If they can sustain that level of support each year, they’ll hit the fundraising goal within the five years as planned.

Instead of relying on the Freed family van, Jacksonville company Elite Parking Services of America is donating a party bus to transport the teams and create a festive atmosphere for the runners. The route will remain the same, beginning at the Florida Supreme Court building and ending at the Duval County Courthouse. On the last day, runners can register to accompany the relay teams for the last 5K, ending in a party on the courthouse lawn.

Now that Crystal will not be needed for transportation support, she intends to strap on her running shoes as part of the Women’s Giving Alliance team.

Kowalski says two JALA teams will participate in the December event, one representing the board and one the staff. “I’m staffing the staff team with ringers,” he jokes. “This isn’t a race. It’s hopefully going to be as fun as possible.”


The need for civil legal aid donations is particularly dire in Florida because the state does not allocate funds for civil legal aid. “Even the District of Columbia provides $9 million,” Kowalski says. “We’re at zero.”

Gov. Rick Scott began vetoing the state legislature’s appropriations for the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act each year after he took office in 2011. After his 2014 veto, the state legislature stopped allocating money for the program in the budget.

The economic recession and the low interest rates that followed also affected the state’s funds for interest on lawyers’ trust accounts, reducing the amount of money available to legal aid organizations.

“We’ve lost as a legal community the ability to convey how legal aid attorneys can impact people’s lives,” says Kowalski. “There’s a lack of focus on telling these important stories, and Mike is helping us communicate that in a very powerful and personal way.”

Michael downplays his importance in Freed to Run’s new trajectory.

“What I’ve tried to do is deflect the attention from me,” he says. “Not to shirk from the platform—because I think that if you have a platform you have to use it for the common good—but to redirect people back on the issue and back on the things that we can do in our communities to unite instead of polarize. That’s all too common nowadays.”

To find out more about Freed to Run, including how teams can sign up to participate, go to Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].

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