John Mills (left) ran in a marathon group last weekend trying to raise awareness for the Best Buddies program, which pairs special needs students, like his son Conor, with more typical high school students. (U. Frank Williams Jr./AFN)

The last weekend in March was a 189-mile adventure for Ahwatukee Foothills dad John Mills, as he was just one in a 12-member team that ran from Wickenburg to Scottsdale in an effort to raise awareness for Best Buddies. "Best Buddies promotes friendships in high schools between typical kids and special needs kids," Mills said. His son, Conor, was born with Down syndrome eight years ago. As a second-grader at Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary, he is a bit young for the Best Buddies program now, but by the time he reaches high school, he will be paired up with a peer. Best Buddies is a nonprofit sister organization to the Special Olympics. As a coach for special needs soccer, Mills says the program is just as beneficial to students like Conor as it is for typical students. "The typical kids get exposure to special needs kids and they want to help," he said. "They take on this big brother role." Now, to raise awareness for the organization, Mills' team - eight of which are Ahwatukee Foothills residents - will take turns running three- to four-mile and eight- to nine-mile legs in a relay that stretches across the Arizona desert, called the Ragnar Relay. "We'll start out Friday morning at 10 a.m., and end in Scottsdale Saturday night," said Mills on the eve of the race. Although there are 36 legs total, that only breaks down to three legs per runner, or about 17 miles per person, spread out over 24 hours. "It's a relay, so you have one runner at a time, and the rest of the team is in a van that meets them at the next spot," Mills said. "It's pretty fun." The Ragnar Relay may just be another chance for the marathon-trained runner to do what he loves, but Mills said he also hopes it will raise awareness for programs like Best Buddies, which are always in need of volunteers and funding. Founded 18 years ago, Best Buddies has grown to help special needs students and even working adults in all 50 states. The program helps more than 300,000 individuals, but there are still thousands who can benefit from the program who do not have access to it. To learn more about Best Buddies, or to find out how to volunteer, visit www.bestbuddiesarizona.org. To find out more about the Ragnar Relay, visit www.ragnarrelay.com/delsol.

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