McFarland cross-country runners' quest touches strangers

McFarland cross-country runners' quest touches strangers
McFarland High's cross-country runners, who won a seventh state championship for their school in 1999, pose with coach Jim White, who holds the team's trophy. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

The mailbox at the small, tired house on Cliff Street began to fill up last week -- letters from around the state sent by complete strangers. How some of them got here was a small miracle. They bore no address or ZIP Code. Only "Jim White, Coach, McFarland, CA."

Inside were checks for $20, $100, $500 and one for $1,000 for the high school cross-country team in this poor farm town. And there were offers from regular people and corporations to buy clothing, food and athletic gear for the runners -- the boys from the farmworker families who work and train in the fields.


"There's a lot of good people out there with good hearts and sometimes you don't hear about them," said a stunned Jim White. "I've had to beat the bushes around here to raise $100, and all of a sudden I'm getting money in the mail."

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times profiled the runners, the coach and their quest to win a sixth straight state championship -- not just for themselves but for their farmworker parents and this town battered by poverty and mysterious childhood cancers.

The boys ended up placing a disappointing fourth in the state meet on Thanksgiving weekend. A few days later, the phone calls and letters began pouring in. Coach White and his wife, Cheryl, said the support could not have come at a better time.

"We're just little old country McFarland folks and the outpouring of love and generosity has been very overwhelming to us," Cheryl White said. "I can't put it into words. A lot of times it takes a defeat to turn something into a positive. These are people we've never met. The letters are coming with no address, no ZIP Code, no nothing."

There was the letter from a music teacher in Pasadena: "Dear boys of McFarland, your story is very inspiring. You are a tough bunch of guys with great hearts. Don't give up. I leave it to Coach White to use this contribution to help your team. Best wishes to all." Attached was a $500 check.

An Asian woman in West Los Angeles wrote: "As an immigrant who came here in 1969 with $20, I've been fortunate to now live a comfortable life with a career. I would like to help your team in a very small way. I hope you're not offended. Please feel free to contact me if any assistance is needed in the future." She enclosed a check for $250.

A man in Redondo Beach apologized for his $150 donation. "I wish it could be more, but such is life."

Coach White pulled aside one of his freshman runners last week and told him that a couple in Los Angeles wanted to "adopt him." Andreas Gomez looked puzzled, and a little worried, until White explained that they weren't proposing to take him from his parents, only to sponsor him with financial aid through his high school career.

On Wednesday, one man drove up from San Juan Capistrano and dropped off a check at the high school. As he was leaving, he asked the assistant coach if he could take home a team photo hanging on the wall. He was given a team T-shirt instead.

McFarland is one of the state's poorest cities with a per capita income of $6,056. More than 90% of the families are of Mexican descent, and most earn their wages tending to the rich farms that surround the town.

White's running program has carved a path out of the fields for dozens of kids. After reading that many of the farmworker families cannot afford to buy their sons racing shoes, a Southern California woman called to offer a pair. Another caller wanted to give Coach White a new bicycle to replace the rickety one that he rides alongside his runners, through the orchards and groves.

A nutrition company in Northern California said it was sending energy drinks and bars. When you run out, the company promised, we'll send you more.

Calls also have come from network news shows and movie companies interested in the story of the coach and his team.

White said he is directing donations to a nonprofit fund for the track program at McFarland High. "This will help us make a dent in the needs here," he said. "We have boys who are running on empty stomachs and sleeping on lounge chairs instead of beds."