Back On My Feet Helps Homeless
“I grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, and it has to be one of the best places to be a kid: children everywhere, big yards, safe, clean. I had my whole life figured out by the time I was 12 years old. By 25 I was going to have an amazing job, married, with two kids and a big white house. This dream started to change when I was 16 and learned my father had a gambling problem. He had been my hero, and I struggled with understanding what was happening to my family. That’s when I started running. Neighborhood jogs soon turned into longer runs. Running helped me understand that I need to take things one step at a time and that, sometimes, I’m going to be on roads that I don’t like. But if I keep moving forward, I will get someplace better—and that’s exactly what I decided to do.
I left home for college, received my master’s degree in Washington, DC, and landed in Philadelphia. While the scene around me changed, the one thing that remained constant was running. I lived on 13th and Hamilton Streets, and most of my 5:30 AM runs took me by the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at the corner of 13th and Vine Streets. I ran by this homeless shelter for two years, but one day in May 2007, I noticed a group of men hanging out on the corner.
What started out as morning pleasantries turned into friendships that would change my life. If running could help me discover a strength I didn’t know I had, I thought, it could also help them. After some calls to the shelter and a few running stores, we ran our first mile together on July 3, 2007.
Every person who joined had to sign a dedication contract to be on time and show up every day. While these guys originally looked at me like I was crazy, they soon looked at me with admiration. For the first time, someone was asking something more of them. Mike Solomon was one of those men. After living a life of drugs and alcohol on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, he now runs to get his life back. Since his time with Back on My Feet, Solomon has graduated from the Metropolitan Career Center in Philadelphia.
That summer I was also at a professional crossroads in my life. I was changing jobs, moving from city elections watchdog Committee of Seventy to the government relations department at Comcast, but not until mid-August, which allowed time for me to get this “running club” started.
Just a few short weeks into it, two powerful observations made me realize this could be so much more than just a running club. First, these men were coming out every day of their own volition—I learned the hard way with my dad that you can’t force anyone to change if they don’t want to. Second, while recording miles after runs, each member would watch me give them credit for their hard work. That’s when it hit me: If we can change the way people see themselves, they will be able to make additional changes in their lives. If we could first focus on their emotional well-being, we could then help them with job training, education, employment, and, eventually, housing. I called Comcast, a company I respected, thanked them for the five weeks they allotted me to start the “running club,” and told them that I would need the rest of my life to pursue my passion.
Back on My Feet is privately funded; we rely on the generous support of volunteers, individual donors, foundations, and corporations. This funding model requires unique and creative fundraisers. That’s how the Stroehmann Back on My Feet 20in24 Challenge was created. The race was designed to raise money, increase awareness of Back on My Feet and our mission, establish a standout running event that members could participate in, and create a unique space where we could continue to change the perception of homelessness. Multiple Back on My Feet residential members (individuals experiencing homelessness) participate in the races, including the Lone Ranger, which challenges competitors to run as many miles as possible in 24 hours (the course record is 146 miles!).
Now, in 2012, Back on My Feet is a national nonprofit celebrating its fifth birthday. We have nine chapters in cities such as Washington, Boston, and New York, with 46 full-time staff, hundreds of residential members, and thousands of nonresidential members (volunteers). Since September 2008, 469 members have obtained employment, 315 have obtained housing, and 464 have enrolled in job training or re-education programs.
It has been a privilege to work with some of the most amazing communities, companies, and people across the country, but no matter where I go, I will forever have a place in my heart for Philadelphia. Throughout this incredible journey, I’ve learned that there are far more important things in this life than big white houses.” 215-772-1080
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RYAN COLLERD (MAHLUM); chris lind (20in24 Challenge)