By Danielle Ray, Senior Reporter
The fifth annual Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation 5K fundraiser is coming up on June 12, the second year in a row pandemic style – virtual.
“We are in full on planning mode,” said foundation co-founder Ashley McNiff, adding that about 200 people have registered so far.
The event will be like last year’s with participants having the option to sign into the 5K on the Charge Running app, giving it a live feel.
“We are really happy with how it went last year,” McNiff said. “We are so excited.”
The foundation was launched in March of 2017 by Caroline Tocci and McNiff, cousin and best friend of Vanessa Marcotte, who was murdered while out for a run in Princeton in August of 2016. Its mission is to advocate “for a world where women live boldly and fearlessly” and promote self-defense and women’s equality.
All the money raised from the 5Ks enables the foundation to support and partner with local organizations and programs that align with their goal of promoting female safety and gender equality. Project Bold at Girls, Inc. of Worcester, which teaches self-defense and safety, is one recipient, as is Girls, Inc.’s Media Literacy, which focuses on the objectification of women in the media and teaches girls how to challenge stereotypes and biases against women in their own lives.
The foundation has remained strong over the past year, despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the hard work of McNiff and Tocci.
Its signature annual self-defense workshop, “Virtual Strike for Vanessa,” was held on Feb. 21. with celebrity trainer Avital Zeisler. All ages and all genders were welcome, and McNiff said close to 300 people participated.
“It was a little different this year, more exercise based, but it was great,” McNiff said. “We were able to reach a wider audience and make a bigger impact.”
McNiff said they typically hold the workshop in person at colleges and such.
“This is the most tangible way we can carry out our mission,” she said of the self-defense workshops. “We are working hard through our programs to address gender stereotypes and educate women on safety awareness.”
Marcotte’s death rocked the local community and beyond. McNiff and Tocci said they did not want that to be what defined Marcotte and decided to start the foundation in her name to honor her.
“It truly can happen to anyone,” McNiff said of the tragedy. “Being prepared and aware are great steps you can take.”
Over the past year they have partnered with organizations to carry out self-defense classes virtually for schools across the state and hosted a webinar with Jackson Katz, who is known for his activism on issues of gender, race, and violence. The webinar is posted as a video series on the foundation website, free to anyone.
“He talks a lot about gender equality and studies about how men can be violent towards women,” McNiff said of Katz. “To be able to connect with him virtually was great.”
McNiff said they hope to be able to get people together in person again one day soon for foundation events. They redesigned the foundation website during the pandemic to make it more “user friendly” and added additional resources, “something that will carry on until we are able to gather together again. We miss being able to gather.”
McNiff said it has been “really awesome for us,” a pandemic silver lining of sorts, to hold the virtual events, enabling people from across the country and around the globe to participate.
“Vanessa was from Massachusetts, lived and worked in New York, and had friends from all over, so it’s great to be able to include all of the communities that she was involved with,” McNiff said. “Being able to expand nationally is great, and it is cool to get outreach from people that may not have even heard of Vanessa. One of our goals was always to expand nationally and with the pandemic we used this opportunity to adapt.”
McNiff and Tocci are both avid runners, like Marcotte was, and they participate in the 5K every year. This year, same as last year, they will be running it separately with family – McNiff in Maine and Tocci on Cape Cod.
“I think for both of us, Vanessa had such a big impact on our lives,” McNiff said. “We were best friends since fifth grade. She was so active in the community and wanted to make it a better place. Knowing her, we had to do something to keep her legacy going. Using her story to prevent this from happening to someone else is really what keeps us motivated to carry out the work we are doing.

For more information visit and follow Vanessa T. Marcotte Foundation on Facebook.