Thursday, May 16, 2013

Back on My Feet - running as empowerment

As the Publisher of StreetWise magazine, I wanted to share a very compelling story with all of you that we featured in our publication. This story will speak especially those of you who love to jog and run.

Learn about Back on My Feet, the Chicago non-profit that uses running to empower at-risk men and women.


It’s 5:45 a.m. on a Monday morning, and the members of the Back on My Feet running group are already halfway through their warm up. Just outside the Lawson House YMCA at 30 W. Chicago Ave., the group huddles for a motivational pep talk before hitting the streets to run the usual four- to five-mile route.

Some runners have completed numerous marathons, while others are training for the first time. Some change out of their tennis shoes to work as lawyers, doctors or teachers. Others have faced the hardships and struggles of incarceration or homelessness. In the huddle, they are all members of one team.

Back On My Feet, a national non-profit organization with local chapters in nine cities across the country, has been promoting the power of running as a method for achieving self-improvement and self-sufficiency since its founding in 2007. The Chicago Chapter launched in September 2010, and has partnerships with four stable housing programs in the city, including the Lawson House YMCA, St. Leonard’s House, North Side Housing in Uptown, and the Lake View YMCA. 

“One of the things that we think is really unique about Back On My Feet is that we bring the community together through our memberships,” Executive Director Terry Rivera said.  “Everyone is a member. We have our residential members that live in the facilities, then we have our non-residential members, which are our community members that come and run with us.”

[From left to right] Back on My Feet members Akbar, Steve, Joe and Charles at Back on My Feet track meet.

For both the residential and non-residential members, the therapeutic and transformational powers of running have provided more than just physical fitness. Back On My Feet offers an opportunity for a diverse group of people to join together, build confidence and social skills, and form a community of trust. The residential members also gain employment and educational resources through their commitment to the program.

“There is 90 percent attendance required in order to move into our program called ‘Next Steps’ where we help with education, vocational training and also offer financial aid,” said Meredith Weber, director of communications. “This can be utilized for anything that can move your life forward.”

The program also has partnerships with Accenture, which offers resume building and mock interview practice; with Harris Bank for financial literacy training; and numerous national partnerships with employers, including Marriott International. Each member earns a total of $1,250 in financial aid that is developed over time and gained through active attendance in these educational programs. The scholarship money goes towards paying for classes, getting licenses for employment and anything that may aid in reaching independence.

Back on My Feet team huddles together, all hands in, and cheers to their accomplishment.

Though these enticing perks provide undeniable tangible gains for residents, members express a different, and unexpected benefit from joining Back On My Feet, in the form of a new and profound passion.

Andy, a residential member from the Lawson House team, recalls how drugs and alcohol addictions were once a debilitating obstacle in his life. Through his involvement with Back On My Feet, running has become a catalyst for moving on and finding new motivations.

“Running has reduced my stress, given me the ability to relax and think about

 my future,” Andy said. “I felt like my whole world was caving in on me. 

Even though I had stopped drinking and doing drugs, I still had no direction. So with running, I learned to focus, to have directions, and to plan.”

Andy completed his first marathon last year, to celebrate two years of sobriety, and hasn’t missed a running date with his team since last July. He also attends computer classes at Howard Area Resource Center and is learning how to run computer operating systems.

“I had to replace my addiction with something. When I got off drugs, I was just open for a new addiction to come in. It could have been gambling, it could have been sex, it could have been anything, but I refused that and I started running. This is my addiction now.”

Back on My Feet team member, Wahid

Andy’s teammate, Wahid, also completed his first marathon last year, serving as a founding member of the Chicago chapter of Back On My Feet and maintaining 100 percent attendance since joining. For Wahid, an integral part of the program comes from the relationships he’s formed with the non-residential members.

“In the beginning, you want the shoes and the sports paraphernalia, and maybe you want to lose some weight, but the last thing you think is that you’re going to get a family – that comes later on,” Wahid said.

After facing homelessness and economic misfortune, Wahid struggled to regain confidence and positivity in his life. The bonds he’s made through the program have inspired him not only to take charge of his own life, but also to give back to others. Wahid works as a volunteer at the YMCA and hopes to gain employment as a mortgage broker to assist low-income individuals.

“As you form a relationship you might have one person who runs with you 

all the time, and you might open up. Talk about what you want to do, and 

what some of your goals are and try to get some advice,” Wahid said. 

“A little intimacy can be created. Running helps you to open up.”

At the St. Leonard House, an interim housing service for formerly incarcerated men, this trust and intimacy create an essential opportunity to socialize and build a network of connections that may help them to reenter the community.

“A long time ago I used to be a very angry person. I used to stay to myself a lot. I did not trust anybody,” said Mingo, a resident of St. Leonard’s and founding member of Back On My Feet. “The [running] group has helped me a lot with this. This group is like a family for me.”

Back on My Feet Member Akbar [right] receiving a hug from volunteer Alex. Hugs are an integral part of the
Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning runs. 

Mingo, another member who completed last year’s marathon, has nearly logged an impressive 1,000 miles since joining the team. Once shy and closed off, Mingo credits his interactions and time with the volunteers for his now outgoing and energetic personality.

“The first thing I like to do when I get up [for a run] is see all my volunteers,” Mingo said. “They learn a little bit about my lifestyle and experience, and then in the same way I learn about their lifestyle. You would be surprised how many people are out there to help.”

Kelly Christl, a non-residential member of the St. Leonard’s team, is one of these people. Christl works as a public defender, and has formed a close bond with Mingo and the others through their marathon training and weekly runs. A seasoned marathon runner, Christl is also a Back On My Feet fundraiser, and accumulated $1,440 for the organization last year alone.

“It really is my favorite part of my week. Mingo and I started the marathon 

together, and I feel so connected to him after sharing that experience,” 

Christl said. “I also just think on a day-to-day basis running with these guys 

is an opportunity for us to just chat about what is going on in their lives, 

and I really feel like I have gotten to know some people that I would never 

have gotten to know on such a personal level.”

Clearly, the non-residential members of Back On My Feet gain benefits equally profound and impacting as those of the residential members. For Christl, even the smallest aspects of her life have been transformed from her time and experiences with the members of St. Leonard’s.

“It’s about people changing their perspectives. I think a lot of the volunteers have changed their perspectives about ex-offenders, and I think that for a lot of the guys this has really broadened their horizons as well.”
Back on My Feet Member Jerry stretching before the meet.

Christl recalls a particular instance that solidified this feeling of mutual respect, stemming from the runners’ close bonds. One member of the St. Leonard’s team had a tattoo on his arms reading “White Power.” After joining the Back On My Feet program and running with the other residents, many of whom are African American, he got the tattoos covered up to read “Salvation” and “Redemption.”
“I think just the idea of being part of a team makes them feel like they are part of something. A lot of them don’t have family, and I remember Mingo used to say that we are his family,” Christl said. “And it just so happens that a lot of the volunteers are also transplants and I think we all feel the same way about them. We are all family, and we are all a team, and we are all in this together.”

The Back On My Feet family is one that continues to grow. The Chicago chapter has plans to extend to more shelters over the next year, and has established a new and larger office space to accommodate all the teams. The Back On My Feet fundraising spots for this year’s Bank of America Marathon in October have also already filled up, and the teams continue to look for more races in which to take part.
For the current members, running is only the beginning of their journey, though. The community formed through Back On My Feet has given a second chance to those who never thought they had the option, reigniting an energy and passion for life. And, after finishing a marathon, Andy, Wahid and Mingo can look to the future without breaking a sweat.

“To me, Back on My Feet is a positive, motivating, life-changing force that 

helps people support and do for themselves. They bring you in with the gear 

and the shoes, but it’s up to you to get a hold of the idea of what its really 

about,” Andy said.  “And the idea is to better yourself – to better yourself to the

extent that you can help somebody else. Now that’s a good thing, right?”


Written by Ann Wanserski
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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