Seven weeks ago, I watched Baltimore, the city I love I so much, burn. Homes, cars, and stores- ravaged at the hands of depredation. And like most others here in Baltimore, as well as the rest of this great nation, I watched, heartbroken…but safely from the confines of my home. A home- with a roof over my head, electricity, and clean running water. A home- a place to sleep comfortably, eat, and bathe. A home- an actual physical address to claim when applying for jobs, setting up healthcare, and identifying myself as a citizen. This is not something I take for granted. EVERYONE deserves a place to call “home”.
In the wake of the events that rocked our city, I saw the beginning of a bit of a revolution, or at the very least, an opportunity for a revolution, begin to take place in Baltimore. The hashtag #OneBaltimore flooded our timelines on social media. I saw a unification of people from various parts of the city come together and ask each other- “what is the solution?” The answer to this question is naturally complex, and if you ask 100 different people, you will most likely receive 100 different answers. That being said, perhaps my best friend, Kate, rephrased this question best- “what is YOUR piece of the puzzle?“. Man, I have some rad friends. Kate nailed it on the head. What can we, as individuals, do to help narrow the chasm of this city and become #OneBaltimore?
I recently heard about an a downright amazing and inspiring organization called Back on My Feet. Per their website (http://baltimore.backonmyfeet.org/), Back on My Feet is “a national for-purpose 501(c)3 organization that uses running to help those experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves so they can make real change in their lives that results in employment and independent living. The organization’s mission is not to create runners within the homeless population, but to use running to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness. The program’s success is measured by how many Members obtaining independence through employment, job training and housing.Through dedication and hard work, Residential Members (those experiencing homelessness) earn the opportunity to create a new road for themselves. Running leads to personal transformation and dedication to the program leads to access to training, employment and housing resources. Through community and corporate support, the program strives to change the perception of homelessness.”
I immediately gravitated towards BoMF, as running unequivocally changed my life over the last decade or so. Running has taught me the power of mental fortitude, and yet also humbled me literally to my knees. Its provided me solace in times of pain, and often soothed my inherent struggles with anxiety. It has taught me accountability. Discipline. Perseverance. And throughout all my races, training groups, and trail runs- I’ve found a support amongst even strangers over this common bond of running.
So I signed up to be a “Fundracer” for the Baltimore 10-Miler! Fundracers are charity runners that pair with Back on My Feet, as a means to raise donations, in support of the organization’s mission. Charity running has become a growing trend over recent years and it is really a fantastic way for organizations to garner revenue, while also increasing public awareness. I was totally stoked to participate!
Raising the funds and reaching my goal wasn’t difficult, as I have some really generous friends that responded swiftly to my Facebook post. But, beyond raising donations, I want to take the opportunity on this forum to showcase what a remarkable program Back on My Feet has going on. Jaclyn Range, the Executive Director of Baltimore’s chapter of BoMF, was kind enough to answer some questions for me so I could share them with y’all!
1. How did your organization get its start? What was the initial connection that you were able to draw between an athletic activity, like running, to address the growing problem of homelessness?
- Our History: http://baltimore.backonmyfeet.org/about-back-on-my-feet
- Timeline from day one is here: http://baltimore.backonmyfeet.org/timeline
- To answer your second question, our Founder Anne Mahlum saw a link between running and it’s empowering ability to help us change the way we see ourselves and for a lot of individuals who are overcoming homelessness, are in recovery or are returning from incarceration, this is a first and necessary step.
2. BoMF has expanded to a number of cities around the country- congratulations! Do you find unique challenges to facing the homeless population in each city you work in? If so, like what?
Welcomed challenges for sure. Each city has sought out to conquer it’s challenges in different ways and it was certainly key to understand this before launching a chapter. As we refined our replication model, it was important for us to adapt our program to best serve the needs of the particular city which could be dependent on anything from the facility system, to the resources allocated to these social services, to the weather to the geographical size of the city. Amidst so much diversity around the country, the one unifying element that we consistently find no matter which city we run in is that all people, no matter who they are or where they come from deserve to feel valued.
3. What are some of the ways that you see running as a positive force in the lives of the people you help? Besides the obvious amazing health benefits, how do you think running can help be a force for positive change in lives of not just the homeless, but everyone?
Absolutely. Running is about more than logging miles. It is a sport that is just as individual as it is communal. I believe that it can serve as the very personal sense of accomplishment we all crave, the self-esteem necessary to build confidence, and the empowerment we all need to determine what it is we are capable of and the potential that exists within us to pursue it. For as much as it is a very individual sport in that it is a personal decision to wake up, lace up your shoes and go for a run, I think we can all agree that we generally get much farther when pushed and supported by an encouraging group of teammates than we’d ever get on our own. And I think for runners, that positivity naturally spills over into life when conversations that began as superficially sharing training goals and upcoming races evolve into much more personal struggles, dreams and hopes for the future. Within the context of a team that seeks to dissolve the stigmas and stereotypes that surround addiction, incarceration, mental illness and homelessness, and instead focuses on creating a space where everyone is offered the opportunity to succeed, and will be supported and encouraged in doing so, it is impressive to witness the transformation that takes place.
4. If you would like to provide any personal stories of people who’s lives have been changed by BoMF, I’d love to highlight them!
We are actually about to share Kevin’s story in our upcoming newsletter/blog:
In just a few seconds of hearing his deep southern drawl, it’s obvious Kevin is not a Baltimore native. Though home is originally in the mountains of Charleston, West Virginia, ‘home’ is certainly a loaded term. Home is the place his father abandoned, leaving Kevin and his brother to raise themselves while his mother battled with her own alcohol addiction. Home is the high school where he first started using and eventually quit to pursue employment at the local racetrack. Home is the place of his own that he lived for 15 years as a functional addict, living off a combination of wages in the hotel maintenance industry and profits from sales as a drug dealer. Home is what he lost to feed his spiraling out of control alcohol and coke addiction, eventually landing him in jail for two years. Home is the place his mother and brother reluctantly welcomed him back to in hopes of giving him a stable place to stay while straightened up his life. Home is what he longed for living on the streets for nearly three years, when his attempts at getting clean failed and his mother was forced to put him out.
Though a 6 hour car ride away, a divinely inspired neighbor mentioned to Kevin place called Helping Up Mission in Baltimore city. With no intention of getting clean or staying at the mission, he appeased his aunt and uncle and agreed to at least visit the place. He didn’t even bring his belongings, leaving a bag fully packed in his aunt’s basement so he’d have an excuse to return home.
Kevin vividly remembers meeting with Kevin Healy, the Associate Director of Programs at Helping Up Mission, who sensed his hesitancy. Mr. Healy looked Kevin in the eye and said, “Kevin, we’ve got everything right here for you” and subsequently told his aunt and uncle they could leave. Up until that point, Kevin didn’t recognize he had a problem. The delusion that everything was ‘okay’ was slowly dissolving and a small part of him knew that Helping Up was in fact everything he needed.
Kevin joined Back on My Feet in April, 2014 and claims his first mile was like a longshot in a horserace – feeling like the odds were against him that he could even finish, never mind win. But he noticed people encouraging him ‘You’re almost there!’ ‘It’s right around the corner!’ and after a string of consecutive decisions to just kept putting one foot in front of the other, he made it.
“You live so long secluded that you lose trust in people and you lose respect for yourself.” In the throes of addiction, Kevin explains, “you don’t really care what happens to you, what you look like or who you disrespect. You lose all sense of feeling and love for anybody.” Within the family of Back on My Feet, Kevin has not just rebuilt his physical health, but has rebuilt respect for himself and for others.
Kevin has since graduated from Helping Up Mission, Back on My Feet and high school, earning his diploma at age 52. And he’s not done yet.
Kevin recently received a scholarship to finish his HVAC certification, making him more marketable in the hotel maintenance field he hopes to re-enter when he graduates in September. He also has his sights set on the Half-Marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in October. [Join our team an run alongside Kevin on October 17th!]
“I wish I would have listened to people telling me – you can do better than the way you’re going. I never believed in myself. I didn’t think I could ever be that better person. I’ve learned I always was that person, just never gave myself the chance.”
With no intention of returning to West Virginia, home is now Baltimore – a place that despite all of the unrest and criticism it has received in recent months, for Kevin, has become a place of hope and a promise for a better future.
Thanks, Jaclyn, for the insight! Kevin, you are one incredible man- hope to see you October 17th for the Baltimore Half!
Pretty amazing, right? I hope each of were able to connect with this as much as I did, and I encourage you to reach out to your cities’ chapter of Back on My Feet!
Bottom line- I challenge each of you today, no matter where you live, to ask yourself- WHAT IS YOUR PIECE OF THE PUZZLE? Take action and give love.