Photo: Runners head down the streets of Hernando at the beginning of the Water Tower 10K. (Courtesy photo)
Literally towering over the downtown city scene in the DeSoto County seat of Hernando is the iconic Hernando Water Tower, built in 1925 after a bond issue was passed to the tune of $20,000.
What has become equally iconic for running enthusiasts in the area and beyond is when fall comes around, it is time for the 12th annual Water Tower 10K race, presented by First Jackpot and Hollywood Casino. This year, the event is to be run on Saturday morning, Oct. 9, in the shadow of the water tower and through the historic streets of the city.
Runners will leave the starting line with hopes of finishing 10 kilometers later running under the finish line inflatable provided by the Mississippi Army National Guard, which is also providing another one on Panola Street for the post-race party.
Not only does it become a test of the runners’ ability to keep in step with hopes of winning the race, or at least finishing and improving their personal best times, but it becomes a fun fall event with a post-race party that offers adult beverages, food, live music, and just a plain ol’ good hometown time. The party will be held on Panola Street and the Courtyard after the race is finished.
The more important reason behind the race, however, comes in what the event supports, said Hernando Community Development Director Gia Matheny, who also works as the Water Tower 10K organizer as part of the Hernando Excel By 5 coalition.
Matheny said runners are running for the reading future of Hernando’s youngest children.
“We became an Excel By 5-certified child-friendly community by the state in 2015,” Matheny said. “We took on the education focus and a strong component of that is literacy. We decided as a coalition that we wanted to take on the Dolly Parton Imagination Library (or DPIL) and see if we can raise enough funds to start this program in Hernando.”
By paying the entry fee to run, participants are helping support the DPIL for Hernando. The Library is a national program that allows parents to sign up their child under the age of five, if their community is part of the program. When their child is officially signed up, DPIL will send them an age-appropriate book free each month until the child’s fifth birthday.
Matheny said it costs the Hernando Excel By 5 coalition about $15,000 a year to have the program in their city, and the Water Tower 10K run is a main source of that funding.
“We have about 400 children today that are enrolled, and we’ve had almost 1,000 children in the program since it started,” Matheny recounted. “The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi oversees the account. If someone wants to donate to the cause, it is a charitable donation and it goes straight to the Early Literacy Program to pay for the books.”
You also see Excel By 5 free books given away as long as they last at special events in the city, such as the Hernando Farmers Market, Dickens of a Christmas, Cookies with Santa, and other such events. The $15,000 cost also pays for those books to be distributed.
In Hernando, Matheny said DPIL is offered as a benefit to residents of Hernando.
It’s important for us to show that we promote early education here in Hernando,” Matheny said. “If we can get our babies to read by the time they are in kindergarten, they have a much better chance of succeeding and getting a good score on the third-grade reading assessment. Then, they have a very good chance of succeeding in school and graduating high school.”
Last year, the Water Tower 10K attracted 488 participants, an impressive figure in the midst of a global pandemic and with hurricane rain after-effects pelting down.
Those who complete the run this year will receive medals and shirts. Top finishers in each age division will get special pottery mugs and awards made by Wes Evans of Pottery By Wes.
And it’s all done to sustain and continue to grow the literacy experiences for Hernando’s youngest and its future.
“We have taken on the challenge of continuing to fund the program and we’re a growing city so we know those numbers are going to grow,” Matheny said. “We hope that this race continues to sustain the program.”
Go to the Water Tower 10K Race sign up website to enter.