By Clare S. Richie
It’s 5:45 a.m. on a humid summer morning when runners gather outside the Salvation Army office in Downtown. On this day, Back on My Feet Team 26 is comprised of about 10 volunteers from all over metro Atlanta and three shelter residents. Everyone greets each other with a hug.
Operating in 11 major U.S. cities, Back on My Feet (BoMF) uses running and community to motivate and support individuals from homelessness to independence. The five-year old Atlanta chapter has served nearly 400 people, of which 131 are employed and 117 found housing thanks to hundreds of volunteers and generous corporate and foundation support. Nationally, the organization has collectively run over 500,000 miles.
Franco is one of the shelter residents involved in BoMF. He had worked in manufacturing as an executive assistant, but when his mom died, his life fell apart. Running has brightened his outlook. “It adds a lot to my day to get up early and run because I feel so much better during the day,” Franco said. He’s been running for three weeks now and is almost ready to transition into the next phase of support.
BoMF recruits men and women, many of who are veterans, at homeless and residential facilities. These residential members commit to run three days a week in the early morning. After 30 days in the program, those with 90 percent attendance, are provided with a personalize support plan.
“BoMF helps our members navigate housing, employment, education, and transportation while advocating for them to enroll in services,” Angela Carter, local executive director of the Atlanta chapter of BoMF, explained.
She said running boosts self-esteem and proves accountability. “If you are willing to get up early and run three times per week – you may be ready to receive and retain employment,” Carter commented.
After warm-up stretches, the group gathers for a team hug and serenity prayer, then hit the pavement.
It’s Wednesday, so the run is led by Martin Chen, who has been volunteering with BoMF since 2011. He loves to run and sees the resident members as his running buddies.
“With BoMF, they get a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Running transforms their lives – gives them a sense of purpose and achievement,” Martin said.
But Karl needs to walk because he is recovering from back surgery even though the college track competitor in him wants to push harder. “[At the Salvation Army], I noticed a lot of guys wearing blue shoes,” Karl said.
In addition to receiving sneakers donated by Mizuno, BoMF residential runners earn other awards like a medal, dry fit shirt, watch or hoodie as they reach mileage milestones.
The group cheers on every runner or walker who finishes. Then it’s time for cool down stretches, announcements about upcoming races, and a closing prayer/cheer. One Saturday a month, BoMF residential members can participate in a local 5K or 10K race for free, thanks to the Atlanta running community.
Franco and Carl are striving to follow in the footsteps of alumni members like Eugene Hardy, who has achieved employment and housing. Eugene, recently recognized at the BoMF 5th anniversary bash, was a combat veteran before becoming homeless. Today he is a thriving employee with Chick-fil-A and has his own apartment.
“BoMF is the most inspirational team members I could ever have. That first day was so awesome. I didn’t know what to expect. When I first arrived, I ran across this young lady named Lisa and she just hugged me. We’ve just been like family ever since,” Eugene said.
In five short years, the Atlanta chapter of BoMF has become a viable member of the continuum of care for the homeless. It built a strong advisory board with representation from Home Depot, AT&T, UPS, Mizuno, Samsung and Marriott. Foundations like United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta have also embraced this unique nonprofit.
“We have made believers out of the people in Atlanta,” Carter said.
The Ponce City Market 5K benefiting BoMF will be held Aug. 13 at 8 a.m. in Historic Fourth Ward Park. To sign up for the race, visit atlanta.backonmyfeet.org.