Back in June, staff and supporters from St. Catherine’s Center for Children in Albany gathered for the annual Capital District Soap Box Derby race, held in Schenectady.

They were there to cheer for “Jerry” (last name withheld for privacy), a resident of St. Catherine’s housing program, who took the local competition by storm.

Every year, more than 1,000 Soap Box Derby races take place across the country, with the winners going on to compete in the World Soap Box Derby championship in Akron, Ohio.

Eleven-year-old Jerry was a newcomer to the Soap Box Derby this year, but he defeated every racer in his age division and went on to race in the world championship in July.

Jerry told The Evangelist that he was nervous before the start of the race, but happy when he realized that he had won. When he went to the Ohio race, Jerry was accompanied by his younger brother, who’s eight, and two staff members from St. Catherine’s.

St. Catherine’s center offers a variety of human services programs for struggling children and families, one of which is a residential program for children, ages five through 13, who have been removed from the care of parents or guardians. Jerry and his brother have been residents for almost two years.

“A lot of kids come to us with such horrible backgrounds and such terrible stories,” explained Adam Rossi, development/community relations associate at St. Catherine’s. “They’ll literally just come with nothing but the clothes on their back and their favorite blanket or their favorite stuffed toy.”

Brian Bell, director of community relations at St. Catherine’s, said the center has been participating in the Schenectady race for the past three years, but no one had imagined what would happen if a child from St. Catherine’s won.

Jerry raced in Schenectady along with another St. Catherine’s resident. Mr. Bell said a major goal of the residential programs is to “normalize a child’s life in the facility” and allow children to participate in opportunities like the Soap Box Derby.

“We worked with the county and they immediately understood that [Jerry] should have an opportunity to engage in this type of event, and it’s something he’s going to remember forever,” said Mr. Bell.

St. Catherine’s already had pre-assembled soap box cars from its past few years of participating in the derby. Still, Jerry’s car had to be calibrated for his height and weight. Jerry said he got to help put the car “shell” on and screw everything together. Mr. Bell and Mr. Rossi also printed stickers for the car and got local businesses to sponsor it.

Joe Frechette, registered nurse at St. Catherine’s, accompanied Jerry and his brother on the trip to Ohio. The competition took place from July 15-21 at the ¬≠Derby Downs Track. Jerry got to carry the New York Region 9 derby flag in the opening ceremony parade and trade pins with other racers from around the country.

Before the big race, family and friends were able to place messages of encouragement on racers’ cars. Jerry’s brother left a note saying, “You can do it, [Jerry]! I know you can!”

Jerry lost out in the first heat of the competition by just a tenth of a second. Mr. Frechette said he wasn’t upset for long, though: “It wasn’t the end of the world. He was just happy to be there. [Racing] just makes you feel like the center of attention for a second.”

Even though he didn’t advance in the derby, Jerry said the trip was still fun. One of his favorite parts was getting to relax at the hotel: “You didn’t have to go to [the track] every day, so we got to stay in [the hotel] and sleep in.”

In fact, it was the first time Jerry and his brother had ever stayed in a hotel. “They were like, ‘Nurse Joe, look at our room!’” Mr. Frechette recalled. “[It] was cool to see how they reacted to it, because it was stuff that we take for granted.”

In addition to the main race, there was an optional parents’ race for adults. Mr. Frechette participated in the race on Jerry’s behalf, and finished third.  

The team also went to a trampoline park, a baseball game, a Dave and Buster’s restaurant/arcade and Cedar Point amusement park. Jerry proudly explained that he went on “the fastest and the tallest” rides.

“To have this opportunity, it’s great for [Jerry] and it’s great for the rest of the kids to see that this is possible,” said Mr. Rossi. “It gives them some hope.”