It was a dark morning, lit up only by the occasional street signs, when I hurried over to the Hess gas station at Broad and Bainbridge to meet the Back on My Feet Philadelphia team before its Friday 5:30 a.m. run. Everything looked deserted except for this circle of dedicated runners who were stretching and warming up.
Ever since I began covering the Philly running community, I have been intrigued by this unique organization that uses running to combat homelessness. The Back on My Feet (BoMF) team I was invited to meet consisted of residents from Ready, Willing & Able, a one-year transitional housing program for the homeless, and the volunteers that run with them. BoMF partners with five local organizations that are either transitional living facilities or emergency shelters.
BoMF has an unusual way of starting its early morning runs. The runners huddle together in the early morning gloom to warm up, and then they recite The Serenity Prayer together.
"It is our way to say that even though some things are out of our control, we are all a team here," said Cathryn Sanderson, senior director of marketing and development for Back on My Feet Philadelphia.
How it works
BoMF is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to help those experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves so they can take positive steps toward employment and independent living. Through reaching running goals and crossing finishing lines, members grow in confidence and self-esteem, which gives them a brighter perspective of their future. Each running team is focused on making all members feel appreciated and supported.
Another key component that BoMF provides is the preparation for independence in a phase called Next Steps. After 30 days in the program, each residential member who maintains 90 percent attendance at the weekly runs will move on to the next phase. Members receive training in financial literacy and skill building, and after that they're granted opportunities for employment and permanent housing. Through these steps, members are given the tools to get back on their feet again.
Meet the team
Kelsey Nawalinski is one of the nonresident leaders for the 5:30 a.m. run. What she enjoys most is being a part of a team again. "It struck a chord with me," she explained. "I missed being part of a team like I did when I played field hockey in school."
BoMF has taught Nawalinski an important lesson: No matter how different we might all appear to be, we do have things in common. "We do this exercise called 'Uncommon Commonalities' where a resident and a nonresident are paired up together and are asked to find uncommon things they have in common."
She explained that this exercise helps her to connect with others on a deeper level, instead of using surface commonalities like eye color or a love of running.
Jason Miller is the executive director of Ready, Willing & Able (RWA), a one-year transitional housing program on Bainbridge Street. When BoMF launched eight years ago, RWA was one of the first shelters that the group built a relationship with.
The program provides dormitory-style housing and three meals a day to 70 men previously from shelters. In order to join the program, the men must promise to work around 30 hours a week cleaning up city parks and streets. RWA also helps them find housing and full-time employment before they graduate from the program.
About 15 of RWA's 70 men currently participate in Back on My Feet. "It is pretty phenomenal how, despite everything they are going through, they commit to running," Miller said.
"Back on My Feet complements what we do really well. The relationship has really created a community and gives the men confidence and a sense of self-worth," he added.
No one knows better how running can change your life than Paul, a BoMF member and a resident at RWA.
Paul is a recovering alcoholic. At 19 years old, he had already racked up two DUIs. Paul realized that he was heading down a bad path so he quit drinking, got married, had children, went to work and stayed sober for 23 years. When his kids were all grown though, he was tempted again to drink and ended up with his third DUI, which in New Jersey meant he lost his driver's license, and from there everything quickly fell apart. He spent time in jail, lost his job, had to sell his house. Eventually, he checked himself into the Salvation Army and that led him to the program at RWA.
Paul can't say enough good things about running with the BoMF team. "You can't put a price on it. It slows my mind and balances me out. If it wasn't for them I would be going out of my mind. I am a novice at this, but I look forward to the run every day."
Since he has been on the team, he has lost 10 pounds and given up smoking. "I didn't realize how easy it would be, that I would want to do this [run] more than smoking."
Paul also appreciates how social barriers disappear among team members. "A couple weeks ago, I had a normal conversation with someone, when before I would have shunned such everyday interaction. You don't want people to know you at this stage of your life."
Back on My Feet Philadelphia currently works with five local shelters to create its teams. All teams run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30 a.m., with some evening runs, as well as longer, optional runs on Saturdays for those training for half marathons or full marathons.
Be a part of positive change
Back on My Feet also holds runs for the community and participates in local races. It recently held its own 5 Miler and will be sponsoring in24 Philadelphia, an overnight series of races July 18-19, including the Urban Ultra, Relay Challenge, Midnight Madness and Justice For All 5K.
This month, as part of sportswear company Mizuno's "Every Mile Changes You" campaign, you can help the resident members of BoMF by buying a pair of Mizuno running shoes at any Philadelphia Runner location. For every pair purchased, Mizuno will donate $10 to BoMF. Mizuno has also announced that it will be BoMF's official national running shoe provider, giving each member a new pair of shoes. You can also support the charity by shopping for BoMF-branded Mizuno apparel at its online store.
As I watched the team run away from the gas station while I prepared to leave, it dawned on me that while we may never be able to truly walk or run in another person's shoes, by sharing the journey with others and offering support and encouragement along the way, we can truly make a difference.