We all know a woman who has overcome personal adversity and made a positive change…
Content warning: child sexual assault
A marathon is always a mighty effort, but one Canberra mum is taking it in her stride and running seven consecutive races in an endeavor to protect children from sexual assault.
Hitting the pavement from 27 June until 3 July, Jess Peil will be taking on the gruelling Bravehearts 777 Marathon for the fourth year in a row, running seven consecutive marathons, across seven states, over seven days, to raise much-needed funds for the charity.
Recognised for her work in the Canberra community—which saw her nominated as a finalist for Australian of the Year, Local Hero ACT in 2021— the 45-year-old mother of three knows firsthand the importance of protecting Australia’s youth.
While Jess has always been an avid fitness fan (often working closely with her husband, a co-founder of Anytime Fitness Australia), her passion for Bravehearts began after hearing about the charity through a friend.
Seven consecutive marathons, a swollen ankle that left her on crutches for three days, and thousands of dollars raised later, Jess was hooked.
“I took it on as a challenge initially,” she says. “But actually going in and doing the training, the feelings that you go through when you’re doing back-to-back marathons gives you such a different perspective for why you’re doing it.”
“Children who are assaulted, their feelings and emotions are obviously quite painful, so we get to experience that a little bit.”
It’s an emotional journey Jess knows all too well.
Feeling uncomfortable around a friend of the family while on a holiday, 14-year-old Jess decided to escape to the room she was sharing with her brother for a break. Laying on a tiny trundle bed to relax, he followed her in.
“Within two minutes he walked in, lay on top of me and I just froze,” recalls Jess. “He just said ‘It’s not very big, is it?’… No one noticed, everything he did on that trip was very hidden away from my parents.”
While Jess says her experience is ‘minimal’ compared to other stories, she’s determined that no child feels powerless or unsafe again.
“As a 14-year-old, I just froze. If you put that onto a five-year-old, or a four-year-old and someone that they trust…They don’t know about sexuality or right from wrong unless the parents have been bold enough to talk about it. It’s a really scary situation.”
Putting her experience “on the back burner”, it was her involvement with Bravehearts that inspired Jess to come forward and share her story. And while raising vital funds for counselling and support services is her main goal, Jess also wants to start making uncomfortable conversations, comfortable.
“It comes back to the community and helping make a whole new community of people that aren’t afraid to talk, especially about this because it is considered a very taboo subject,” she says.
“But…it brings someone a sense of peace about what’s happened, lets them know that it’s not their fault and what happened doesn’t define who they are.”
Adding to her impressive achievements, Jess also recently launched a philanthropic group to assist partnering foundations in protecting children from sexual assault.
With approximately one in five children experiencing child sexual assault or exploitation, the Young Voice Foundation works with organisations like Bravehearts to raise awareness around the work they do and ensure they don’t go unnoticed.
Running 294.5 kilometres in a week, Jess admits the seven-day marathon—including the Canberra event which will take place on Saturday 2 July— is her favorite time of year.
“It hurts, don’t get me wrong. My feet and blisters are not good friends,” says Jess. “But I love it, it’s a really great thing.”
With every dollar raised going to support child sexual abuse prevention and educational programs such as Ditto’s Keep Safe Adventure Show and ProjectYou! Jess hopes to see more locals sign up as state runners, turning the day into a festival of fitness.
And while she’s already raised an impressive $130,000 for Bravehearts, Jess doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“I will run for Braveheart and keep kids safe for as long as I can. When I can no longer run, I’ll walk and when I can no longer walk, I’ll crawl.”
“I just want to see this world a better place for kids and help kids have the childhood that they need.”
To donate directly to Jess visit bravehearts.org.au/fundraisers/jesspeil