Covering Common Ground

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – December 3, 2012
Foto Hogg

It’s a picture-perfect Austin day, one of those rare fall moments when the sky is as blue as the Caribbean and yet there’s a slight chill to the air. A small group of people surrounds a lovely, lithe young woman with an athlete’s muscled legs and a rock star’s spiky ’do, who laughingly poses in running clothes as the water from the Liz Carpenter Fountain in Butler Park shoots skyward around her. The photographer gives instructions; the poses change; a young mother and her son watch from a nearby picnic blanket. “Excuse me,” she asks as the group walks by, “should I get an autograph? Is she someone famous?”

If Anne Mahlum isn’t famous in Austin now, she will be soon. While the 31 year old is an avid runner with a 3:22 marathon PR and the dedication to have logged a marathon on six of the seven continents (the last, Antarctica, is planned for 2014), it isn’t her running that puts Mahlum on the map. It’s running her nonprofit organization, Back on My Feet (BoMF), that makes Mahlum a standout competitor. She’s in the process of bringing BoMF to cities all around the United States and Austin will become home to the nation’s tenth chapter on January 28, 2013.

As described in their mission statement, BoMF is “dedicated to creating independence and self-sufficiency within the homeless and other underserved populations by first engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength, and self-esteem.” Mahlum combines her passion for running with her compassion for those individuals who are experiencing homelessness to create a program that acts as a stepping-stone for all of the rest of life’s meaningful accomplishments.

“Running is so much more than burning calories and working out,” explained Mahlum. “There is a relationship there. It’s your best friend, your lover, your enemy, all at the same time. And you keep going back for more. It’s really a special bond with that motion, of moving your body in such a natural, primitive way.” She speaks from experience; as a teenager, Mahlum turned to running as a way to cope with issues within her family brought on by her father’s addiction to gambling. His problem was ripping the fabric of their lives apart. “I remember crying on one of the first runs I did. As a girl who’s sort of a tomboy, it was not something I wanted to do but I felt like I was cleansing myself. [Running] allowed all the emotions to come out, and I felt like myself when I was running.”

Runners know that there is a wonderful anonymity and equality that goes with the sport. A pair of running shorts and a tee act as a uniform; it’s possible to run with someone in a group for quite some time without knowing whether he or she is single, a parent, rich, political, or even a senior citizen. What is easy to tell is whether that runner is reliable, dedicated, and goal-oriented. And the great equalizer is pace—all running a 10-minute-mile, say, are together, no matter what their backgrounds, goals, or levels of experience. It was this language of running that brought Mahlum to the nonprofit world. She realized that sharing this language with a population that was often derided, looked down upon, underprivileged, and experiencing significant life trauma could very possibly help them turn their lives around.

She credits her dad with this discovery. By living with him and watching his struggles and, many times, resulting bad choices as he sought treatment for his addiction—often repeated, over and over again—“I learned the power of voluntary behavior, of doing something of your own volition,” she explained. The Back on My Feet program works with homeless shelters to show participants that they can take scary first steps, work toward accomplishing goals (big and small), and make connections with people in the community. And they do this through a regular running program. The first step is to break down stereotypes.

“Most people have an image of homelessness,” Mahlum began. As she spoke, her voice became more and more emphatic and her gaze almost steely. “People say, ‘I have nothing in common with those people,’” she said when asked about negative reactions from the public. “Those people you see at street corners, they make up about ten percent of the homeless population. The other 90 percent are in shelters trying to get help and mask their homelessness. Those [negative] people feel like they know homelessness because they’ve seen a guy on the corner, but everybody who comes to a program launch and sits with the participants learns about BoMF, and you can almost feel the humanization in the room.”

It’s this 90 percent that BoMF targets. The first step in any new city location is forming a partnership with the local homeless shelters that allow residents to stay for four to six months. Many shelters only allow a shorter stay and Mahlum exhorts, “Change isn’t possible in 30 days. People need a more stable environment for us to work with them.” The Salvation Army, Front Steps, and Ministry of Challenge are the facilities that BoMF is partnering with in Austin. “We will hire three staff members and need approximately 150-200 volunteers for the Austin chapter,” said Mahlum. But Mahlum quickly corrected herself to explain, “We don’t use that word [volunteers]. We call all of our volunteers ‘non-residential members’ and we call the people we’re helping ‘residential members.’ That way, the language is all the same.” While it might seem trivial to outsiders, details such as this non-stereotypical language bring about a shift in self-perception that is crucial to the program’s success. “Being homeless defines you; we call them ‘homeless people.’ We don’t call you ‘person with a home,’” Mahlum said feistily. “We have to overcome all those stereotypes….We take the time to help [our participants] make those positive associations.”

BoMF replaces the “box” of homelessness with a new, positive self-image, which participants achieve through three weekly runs, led by non-residential members, starting at 5:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each residential member signs a contract committing to stick with the program, make the runs, keep a log, set goals. Each participant is given a new pair of running shoes and appropriate apparel the day before the chapter launch. They start with a 1-mile run at 5:30 a.m. before the launch breakfast, residential and non-residential members alike, all dressed similarly. The goal is that each residential member has a non-residential member to run or walk with so no one is left to struggle alone. As the days and weeks go by, the mileage increases to the point that some members may train for half marathons or longer with an additional Saturday run.

Along the way, there are hugs, peer recognition, shared discussions, and bonds formed, the kind every runner recognizes as being forged out of common workouts and group identification. After 30 days of participation, residential members with 90 percent attendance move to the “Next Steps” phase, and 75 percent of BoMF’s residential members qualify for this program. At this point, they sit down for individual consultations with BoMF staff to develop a plan for the future which, ideally, enables them to find a residence of their own. The common experience of running takes the fear out of what can seem like insurmountable obstacles. Some people may ask, “Why bother with the running? Why not just go straight to this step, helping people tackle their lack of a GED or giving instruction on how to disclose a felony background to a potential employer or, simply, giving them a home?” This is the bedrock of BoMF, and Mahlum gives a comprehensive response.

“We can’t skip the running stuff because it goes back to the emotional core—people aren’t ready to be, we feel, good employees [before this point]. They haven’t learned the lessons and been able to see discipline, focus, reliability, dependability. We need to see that they’re actually able to demonstrate that before we’re going to take those individuals and put them in an environment where that’s absolutely necessary to be successful. So we feel like we’d be cheating them and our [business] partners [who are providing employment opportunities] by not first getting people to have a positive association with themselves and, again, being able to see those traits as necessary for success in a job,” she reasoned. “It’s so funny…our employers are, like, ‘This guy can get up at five in the morning three days a week and run, rain or shine, and is on time and has a positive attitude? I can’t get half my employees to do that.’”

In Austin, RunTex will be providing the running shoes and gear prior to the chapter’s first run. The launch breakfast is scheduled for January 28 and will be hosted by the Westin Austin at the Domain. Mahlum just hired the Executive Director for the new chapter: Joe Marruchella. Marruchella is a runner, with a total of ten marathon finishes (two of them at the Boston Marathon), as well as a triathlete. He has a background in fundraising management and has been the director of development for Austin’s SIMS Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to bring low-cost mental health care to the musical community.

What Back on My Feet needs now is the enveloping embrace of Austin’s avid running community. There’s still the matter of enlisting some 150-200 non-residential members to run and walk with the group, and those interested can sign up at www.backonmyfeet.org/back-on-my-feet-austin.html (as well as find a number of other helpful connections to make with Austin’s new chapter). The donations made for the launch breakfast help toward the initial seed money and there are still seats available, though the big donors have secured their spots. Every little bit helps to get another person out onto the road, taking the first steps towards recovering a sense of self worth and developing the skills to make those significant life changes that will take them out of the shelter and remove the label of “homeless.”
 

How to help Back on My Feet find footing in Austin 

LAUNCH PARTY: The most immediate way to help Back on My Feet is by donating and attending the Austin Inaugural Launch events on January 28, 2013 (go to backonmyfeet.org for event details). Residential members and supporters will participate in the 6 a.m. run which initiates the training program and all will join together to celebrate at the breakfast, where Anne Mahlum will speak. Money raised from the donations made towards attending the launch event will provide much needed seed funding for the chapter.

Austin businesses have generously stepped up to support the launch events; Accenture, AT&T, JW Marriott, Mrs. Baird’s, RunTex, Thomas’, and White Lodging are all major launch supporters, and ACE Cash Express recently added a large contribution (some $30,000) to give the new Austin chapter a solid start.

IN24: A fun way to support BoMF is through IN24, a 24-hour running event that includes an urban ultramarathon, a 5-person relay, a 2-person relay, a sunset run, and a pajama run all presented by BoMF and RunTex. IN24 is modeled after BoMF’s original 20in24 Race Challenge started five years ago in Philadelphia, the largest urban ultramarathon in the country; runners see how many miles they can complete in a 24-hour period on an 8.4-mile loop around the beautiful Schuylkill River. The other events are run on the very same loop at different times on different days. The relays have different levels of difficulty for participants to choose, and the sunset and pajama runs each consist of one loop at different times (hence the names). For more information about the Philadelphia run, go to www.20in24.com.

In Austin, Mahlum is “99 percent” sure that the event will be held at Camp Mabry around a five mile loop and the target date is May 10, 2013. All the residential members will be there, and the loop nature of the event makes it a great venue for people to hang out, run, and build bonds. With Austin’s vibrant running community and ultramarathon talent, IN24 is sure to be a success.

“Austin is one of the most welcoming cities when it comes to working together to help those experiencing homelessness,” said Mahlum. “The homeless services provided as well as the running and corporate communities [here] are collaborative and enthusiastic and we’re looking forward to working as a team to make an impact in Austin.”

 
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