Miranda Villarreal and Sabine Medrano spent many years as juvenile probation officers in the Texas justice system. They were all too familiar with the future that often awaits juveniles who enter the system. It can become a revolving door for kids. Having worked so closely with these young people, though, they also knew how rare it is to find a truly “bad seed.”
While bad circumstances abounded, almost all of the kids Villarreal and Medrano had dealt with wanted to do the right thing; they had just never been shown what that was. With this experience in mind and an August 2011 Runner’s World article about the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas as inspiration, Villarreal and Medrano created Run Free Texas in 2012. Run Free Texas is a local nonprofit organization that offers a free running program to at-risk youth in the community. Its mission is “to assist our youth in lowering their self-compromising behaviors, to educate the youth on the physical and mental health benefits of being physically active, and to build a support system around the youth comprised of positive family, school and community members for the youth to succeed within our community.”
Through its founders’ hard work and existing connections, Run Free Texas was immediately added to the recognized rehabilitation programs within the Williamson County Juvenile Services Department. This meant that juvenile probation officers, after sitting with their young clients to assess their needs and evaluate how they might best be helped, could assign youngsters to Run Free Texas as a condition of their probation.
From there, Medrano said, the two founders “work to teach at-risk youth how to think about their future, how to attain confidence, and how to develop a sense of personal control over themselves and their environment. Learning and knowing how to make better choices for themselves will allow them to become healthy contributing members of our community.”
At first, kids may approach the 12-week program with some hesitation from the kids; they may not be used to physical activity and structure, or may have expectations about what a program like this entails.
“Youth are typically very nervous when they first start our program, as they often come with preconceived notions:the staff acting like drill instructors, or that they are going to be running the entire time,” Medrano said. “What they soon find out is that Run Free Texas is all about providing a fun, safe environment where there is a lot of encouragement.”
The staff and volunteers participate in whatever they ask the kids to do, and the atmosphere is always supportive. Having worked for so long with kids in these same situations, Villarreal and Medrano work hard to include elements that might otherwise be missing: a team dynamic, rewards that include games of kickball and basketball after good workouts, support outside of the group, and guest speakers who appear regularly to share messages of triumph and positivity. Upon completion of the 12 weeks, the team participates in a 5K, signifying a new milestone in their burgeoning running careers as well as the end of the compulsory part of the Run Free Texas program. Those students who have embraced the program and achieved 90 percent attendance are offered a one-year scholarship, wherein Run Free Texas pays all fees for the student to participate in any sport of their choosing. Villarreal and Medrano, avid runners themselves, understand that running isn’t for everybody, but the positive experiences and new sense of self cultivated within can hopefully be taken up elsewhere.
Running with Run Free Texas
In early August, I had the opportunity to join a Run Free Texas workout in Round Rock. At first it was a quiet group. Medrano peppered the kids with questions. They gave one-word answers, staring at their feet, the sort of awkward behavior expected from middle and high school students. She announced they’d be running a 1-mile time trial, and the atmosphere changed. As Medrano read off results from the last time trial and asked for predictions, the energy was suddenly palpable. We lined up (even I was nervous), there were some last second shouts of encouragement, and we were off.
Following the run, it was a changed group. The times were hardly important; pride and accomplishment were easily seen in each of their faces. As new times were read, there were “oohs” and “aahs” from the huddles of students and volunteers, laughter and hugs, and the joy of a hard effort celebrated. It was a wonderful moment, and an example of the main reason why Run Free Texas is growing so fast as a unique and much-admired program in Central Texas.
How Can You Get Involved?
The entire Run Free Texas program, which is offered free of charge and includes shoes, tech shirts, paid staff, race fees, and scholarships, is paid for through two yearly fundraisers. The first is the Run Free Texas 80’s 8K, which for the first time this year will be featured as the first race of the Austin Distance Challenge sponsored by Austin Fit Magazine on Sept. 14. The second is the Guns N Hoses and Average Joes Dodgeball Tournament, featuring teams of police officers, firefighters, and average folks. Despite the overwhelming success of these two events, Run Free Texas still needs private donors and sponsors as they continue to grow in program scope and in locations. Volunteers are also a much-needed part of their success.