Unlike Olympians, Susan Rappaport doesn’t run for the gold. Rather, she’ll take coins, bills, or credit cards. This New York City mother of two, who dubs herself “Marathon Mom,” ran in her third New York City Marathon last November to raise much needed funds to keep her sons’ after-school program afloat.

Although she’s no Sean “P. Diddy” Combs—the hip-hop mogul raised $2 million for New York’s public schools by running in the 2003 New York City Marathon—she’s a hero at P.S. 166, a public elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Running for the students there in two of the last three marathons, this part-time hairdresser, real estate broker, and mother of two sons almost single-handedly raised $12,000 to keep the after-school program in the black. The school’s Enrichment Club offers classes in basketball, computers, chess, ballet, Irish step, astronomy, art, yoga, and more. It is funded by participant tuition and supported by the Parents Association, which offers scholarships for needy students.

Susan, 42, an active Parents Association member, asked people to pledge an amount per mile (the race is 26.2 miles long) or give an outright donation. Some days she set up a coffee and doughnut stand in front of the school at morning drop-off—free goodies with every $10 donation. The coffee was donated by the local Starbucks, doughnuts supplied by nearby Krispy Kreme. She publicized her fundraising efforts on the school’s website and gave updates in the weekly newsletter.

This year, she challenged students to pitch in, too. The incentive, beyond pride in their school and philanthropy: “A contest,” says Susan, who got all the prizes donated. The class that raised the most money was treated to lunch at Applebee’s restaurant in Times Square. The child who raised the most money got a $50 gift certificate to KB Toys. Knowing she needed teacher support, she also gave the teacher of the winning class a gift certificate to Acqua, a local restaurant.

Some donations came in the form of $100 checks. Others were bags of dimes and quarters children as young as kindergarten age raised by asking family and neighbors to support the effort.

The most inspired student, naturally, was Susan’s own son, 10-year-old Jake. He raised $480 of the $600 contribution made by his class. (It included his $5 allowance.) “I called a lot of people,” he explains, “and told the story about children who wouldn’t have an after-school program if they didn’t help. How would they feel if they were one of those children? I said I have the greatest time at after-school and kids need it.”

Until four years ago, Susan Rappaport never thought of running a marathon. “My father was a marathoner in California, but I fought it as long as I could,” she says. She first began working out intently 14 years ago when she married her husband, Paul, a physical therapist. Then, four years ago, a friend training for a marathon asked Susan to join her practice runs. By the time they did a 16-mile run, Susan was hooked. “I knew I had to run a marathon.”

“I had always stood on the streets and cheered on the runners for so many years and felt so much emotion,” she says. “When I found out I could do it, I just had to. I wanted to have a piece of what all those runners had. It felt to me like the ultimate accomplishment just to be able to stand on the starting line with all those people and participate in the race.”

Running in the marathon is “especially important at this time in my life,” she says, “when everything I do is for everyone else. This was a commitment I made to me, for me, about me.”

But in the end, it really wasn’t just for her.

She realized she could be a great role model. “I wanted to show them (the P.S. 166 students) that it’s possible to run the marathon and it’s possible to raise money to help your school. I definitely want to set an example and show the kids what you can do when you set out to do something.”

After running this year’s marathon with more than 36,000 people over five bridges, through five boroughs, and over countless streets, she visited the school to thank the students for helping her in her quest, showing off all three of her marathon medals and her sore muscles.

Several other parents have since expressed interest in helping to raise donations by joining her in next year’s run. In the future, Rappaport can envision a group of P.S. 166 parents and teachers running as a team, outfitted in school T-shirts and really raising big bucks for various school enrichment programs. Other schools can easily do a similar fundraiser, she says, whether it’s getting donations to run with an established marathon or creating a run-athon, walk-athon, or even a read-athon of their own.

Her lessons in philanthropy have obviously come home. Recently, her 7-year-old son Riley offered to send $12 of his own savings to the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. “My mom taught me it’s important to help other people,” he says proudly. “She’s taught me good lessons. She’s a great mom.”