Run-walk in teen's honor unites Swedesboro area

Lauren Boerlin and race director Michael Hochman next to the big bell at the Woolwich Fire Co. (Avi Steinhardt/For The Inquirer)

A young volunteer for Swedesboro's upcoming Dragon 5K Run was asking Lauren Boerlin about her son, Nathaniel.

"I told him, 'Nate was like you. He was a kid, playing basketball and running around,' " she says.

"'But he got sick.' "

Nate was a 16-year-old Kingsway Regional High School honor student and marching band percussionist when brain cancer claimed his life in 2007.

Beginning later that year, and continuing every year since, upward of 1,000 Dragon runners (and walkers) have filled the Gloucester County borough's charming streets on the last Saturday in September.

The 5K run and the one-mile walk - the kickoff and the highlight of the annual Swedesboro-Woolwich Day celebration - raises scholarship money in memory of Nate, a gifted music student who had hoped to study at the Juilliard School.

"He was a fantastic young man," says Kingsway Superintendent James Lavender. "We lost him way too soon."

Until becoming ill two days before his death, Nate had shown no symptoms; an autopsy later revealed he had a stage 4 tumor called a glioblastoma.

"Nate couldn't fulfill his dream," says his mother, 53, who lives in the Mickleton section of East Greenwich Township with her husband of 28 years, Craig. "I want to make sure others can attain theirs."

The run "has come to represent what our community is about, what the Kingsway community is about," says Swedesboro Mayor Tom Fromm. "This community has taken it to heart."

So far, the Nathaniel Boerlin Scholarship Fund has presented 10 graduating Kingsway seniors each with $1,500 for college.

"Although small, these scholarships might make the difference between a student applying to college or not," Boerlin says. "Nate would have liked that. He loved learning."

"After Nate died, my husband and I consciously made a decision for us and our children," adds Boerlin, a practicing Catholic. "We're going to get up, go to church, and do life. We're going to do positive things, so we don't become negative."

I meet the resolutely upbeat Delsea Regional middle school English teacher in the heart of Swedesboro, near the starting point of Saturday's race.

A mother of triplets (all three are college freshmen this year), Boerlin shares a Kings Highway sidewalk table with race director Michael Hochman. His daughter had been in the Kingsway marching band with Nate; the 5K was his idea.

"It's a great event," says Hochman, an East Greenwich resident who works in sales at Caesars in Atlantic City. "All the Kingsway sports teams get so jazzed. The race T-shirts are a big deal, a different color every year. I'll give you the scoop: This year, they're navy blue."

The Dragon Run (named for the Kingsway mascot) "may be the only event that unites the entire Kingsway community and our entire region," Lavender says. "The energy is through the roof on Dragon Run weekend."

Kingsway serves a 52-square-mile swath of traditionally rural but rapidly suburbanizing Gloucester County, and includes the townships of East Greenwich, Woolwich, Logan, and South Harrison, as well as the Borough of Swedesboro.

With roots going back to mid-1600s, according to the borough website, Swedesboro (population 2,600) is the Kingsway community's downtown. And Swedesboro-Woolwich Day, which offers 200 vendors, food, and entertainment, attracts more than 10,000 people.

"I'll be there to hear Lauren speak at the start of the race. She always makes me cry," says Amy Davis, who owns Petals and Paints, a flower shop on Kings Highway.

"My kids grew up with the Boerlins," Davis adds. "It's great to see so much support for a family that is so loved."

"When you have people who care about you, you can get through absolutely anything," Boerlin says. "When you give of yourself, you can't be in a mire of sadness."

Says her neighbor and friend Michelle Scialabba: "The Boerlins are special - they're so giving - and that's why everyone continues to support them."

"They say it takes a village to raise a child," she adds. "Well, we have one heck of a village here." 856-779-3845 @inqkriordan