Note: This story was originally produced by Bittersweet and published on Stand Together's story platform.
5:30am Monday, Wednesday, Friday
I was told to show up to the corner of Broad and Bainbridge in South Philadelphia at 5:30am. “There’ll be people, you’ll see them,” I was told. That’s how I met Denny. An immediately friendly face, he welcomed me with a big hug, and then hugs from twenty others followed. The diversity of the group was striking—twenty-somethings, thirty-forty-fifty-somethings, male, female, black, white, athletic and not apparently so.
Diane initiated introductions, and Leslie announced the routes: “We’ll be running down South Street this morning—two miles to the foot of the bridge and back, three miles will be across the bridge to 33rd Street and back, four miles to Spruce Street and back.” With that, we circle up, arms around each other, and recite the serenity prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Your will, not mine.”
Credit: Erica Baker
There was an intimate and instant solidarity that I found rather striking—an uncommon coming together, at a very unpopular hour, each of us seeking something. Me, I was seeking an equally unfit running buddy interested in no more than three miles, and in Denny I found my partner. We all start out down South Street, the strongest runners quickly pulling away from our puttering pack, and Denny and I start talking about life.
Thus began my first run with Back on My Feet—an experience thousands before me have had and been changed by.
Credit: Erica Baker
Diane Mastrull has been showing up to that corner at 5:30am multiple times a week for a few years now: “It required a bit of courage to get out the door that first morning because I didn't know a soul,” she remembers. “I just knew to show up at the corner of Broad and Bainbridge in South Philly, a corner that I don't know that I've ever been at before.”
“The running part was very appealing to me. The relating to homeless people was more intimidating,” admits Diane. “The homeless to me were people that I passed on the sidewalk on my way to work. I never really thought about the human being in that body that sat asking for help. I'm ashamed to say that now.”
This South Philly team is one of four Back on My Feet teams in Philly and is made up mostly of men from Ready, Willing, and Able, a transitional housing provider for men overcoming homelessness.
Diane and Anthony, who after training for six-months, ran the Philadelphia 10-miler together. / Credit: Erica Baker
After a few years of running with this particular team, Diane reflects on how her perspective has shifted: “Now I know they are people with rich backgrounds, sometimes very painful backgrounds, sometimes very unfair backgrounds. These are guys with big hearts who give you giant hugs. They're dads. They're husbands. They're grandfathers. They're brothers. And they are courageous in that it's real easy to give up. It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge your weaknesses and your faults, admit them in a public setting such as this, and then work hard every day to conquer them.”
Mile by Mile
It’s their attendance at morning runs that qualifies members for Next Steps—the broad range of services and care that Back on My Feet staff are eager to provide. After three runs, they get new sneakers. At four weeks, with 90% attendance, members begin one-on-one support with staff to help them define and achieve their goals, whether that’s independent housing, employment and earning a livable wage, reconnecting with their kids or accessing training and education opportunities.
Philly, like most other major cities where Back on My Feet operates, has many services and programs available to help individuals overcome homelessness, addiction, and unemployment—but across the board, it’s fair to say they generally lack a vital dimension: supportive community.
When runners first join the team, many don't even think they can make it a single block. "How are they supposed to believe they're going to go get a job? How are they going to believe that they can do anything like that and stick at it?" asks Back on My Feet CEO Katy Sherratt. "Running gives them those incremental, aspirational goals," she explains.
Back on My Feet is unique in this way—their staff provide wraparound services that other care agencies do, but it all hinges on committed relationships deepened through physical exercise, or sweat equity.
“Just the other day, there was one member who was applying for a job and he needed references. Literally every single person on that team signed a form to be his reference. Before running with Back on My Feet, he didn't have anybody that could be a reference that wasn't in jail or didn't have a background of some sort. These were people that could vouch for what he has done and what he's accomplished, who have seen the hard work that he has been putting in,” says Cathryn Sanderson, Executive Director of the Philly Chapter.
More intangibly, it’s incredible to see confidence build right in front of your eyes, mile by mile, and that’s what happens on these morning runs—and even more so on major runs like 10Ks, 10 milers, and marathons. Diane has seen it happen dozens of times: “It's a great way to build confidence at a time when they don't have a lot of confidence about a lot of other things in their life,” she says.
“In the long run, it's worth it. It turns lives around. It turned mine around.” Denny Mehr, Alumni / Credit: Erica Baker
The Back on My Feet experience is one that many members add to their resume, and during interviews, more than one employer has remarked, “If you can get up at 5:30am to run, then you can get up at 5:30am to work.” It proves a level of discipline and commitment that can be hard to otherwise prove in the midst of complicated circumstances with vast and varied challenges.
“For the large majority of our folks, they don't have any background in running or fitness. We've had people who were blind. We've had people in wheelchairs,” says Ramon Laboy, an experienced social worker and Program Director for the Philly Chapter.
“In previous organizations I worked in, I felt myself working harder than the ‘client’ was working. Here I'm so grateful to be able to meet a person where they're at and help them through their own process, on their own timeline, with no one pushing any other agendas. It's up to the person to make things happen. We work alongside them—not in front of them, not behind them. I'm not working harder than anybody, I'm working alongside them.”Ramon LaboyProgram DirectorPhiladelphia Chapter
Life by Life
This approach is working all over the country—not just in Philly. Back on My Feet has twelve chapters and has helped more than 5,500 individuals overcome homelessness and addiction.
“We're talking about homelessness, we're talking about addiction, we’re talking about reentry,” explains Ramon. “There are so many broken systems that are intertwined with Back on My Feet, but it's the happiest place I spend my time. It never feels like work because we're celebrating so much—celebrating someone getting employment, someone getting housing, someone reuniting with their family. Honestly, it has been so consistent over the past five years—the program works and people do change. People can make long lasting change.”
“Our promise is support. We're here, our door's always open. If you are willing to put in the work, and if you're willing to show up, then so are we,” explains Philadelphia Chapter's Executive Director, Cathryn Sanderson.
Depending on demographics and facility partnerships, the different chapters (for example, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, New York, Baltimore, Philly, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago…) all serve different demographics with varying needs. “We serve women who are running away from abusive relationships—literally hiding their identities, fearing the repercussions of being found," says Kari Lindemann, National Marketing Director. "We have people who are recovering from substance abuse. We have vets who became addicted to opiates. We have people who had really terrible luck. And they all come together in this one space, and run in the morning alongside our community.”
Kari Lindemann, National Marketing Director, Back on My Feet / Credit: Erica Baker
“It brings people together," says Denny. "That's what it does. It brings people from all walks of life. People that's gone through different trials and tribulations. Someone's been homeless, someone might've just came out of a jail or just lost themselves in life and this gives you a reason to push forward and keep going and gives you a drive. There's nobody any different than anybody else when we run together. We're all one team.”
And everyone comes for different reasons. One alum, Coffy, said she really just wanted the shoes, until she decided the community was actually more valuable. Back on her feet indeed, Coffy was recently featured on the cover of Women’s Running magazine and will soon graduate with a degree in social work.
Most members are temporarily sleeping in shelters, which generally makes for very stressful living: “Having your stuff stolen or not knowing who you're going to be sleeping next to from night to night, that can be a stressor. A lot of things that we take for granted, we don't even think about our guys and ladies have to—and then still be able to get up and come out to run, especially in the winter when it's 25, 30 degrees and you've already dealt with a whole night of nonsense,” explains Ramon.
Ramon Laboy (left) with DeAlvin Releford (right) / Credit: Erica Baker
Given all of those factors, it’s very important that volunteers are consistent and equally committed to showing up. “The accountability is not just on the members to show up, it's also the volunteers to be that support structure, and to make sure that they're there when they say they're going to. So we ask the volunteers to commit at least one day a week,” explains Kari.
That relational stability and support is vitally important—the crux of it all. Not surprising then that it’s also the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—belonging. The simple fact is, a community of positive influences and healthy activity is like water in the desert for many men and women trying desperately to overcome their circumstances.
“I appreciate Back on My Feet showing me that I don't have to use no matter what—the natural high superseded the fake high, you know. Just like the endorphins being released, the dopamine, I didn't know the change was happening. I appreciate Back on My Feet for showing me that I can be the man that God want me to be, and fulfilling my destiny on this journey.”DeAlvin RelefordMemberPhiladelphia Chapter
Along the journey, Back on My Feet builds in mile-markers to celebrate achievement: After three runs, a member gets new running shoes. At 25 miles, it’s a t-shirt, at 50 it’s a hat, then a watch at 75 and a sweatshirt at 100.
Credit: Erica Baker
I ask Denny about his mile-markers, starting with the shirt he’s wearing: “This one, 25 miles, I didn't think I would make it, but I did. My hat was from 75 miles. I broke my watch that I earned from running 100 miles. I got the 175 mile shirt, which I'm well over that now. I'm in the 200’s. A medal running...I can't remember how many miles. It gives you something to look forward to, even if it's just a little shirt. You know? Just an accomplishment, like, ‘Look, I did this.’” He smiles, “It makes you feel good.”
Over time, those little incentives build into a growing sense achievement that’s hard to put a value on. Steve Greenberg, founder of Furnishing a Future, a Back on My Feet employment partner, calls it a ‘mental edge’—the difference between a lifetime puddle-jumping menial jobs and a stable career track earning a livable wage.
“Ramon is the guy who helps funnel people who are motivated,” explains Steve, “I'll tell you these, so far, the people I work with, they're motivated. Generally they're sick of their situation. I mean, no one wakes up when they're 15 and says I want to be homeless without a skill. Nobody.”
For his part, Steve spends six-weeks training them in carpentry math, woodworking, and furniture making, then he sends them on to a number of employers eager to hire hard-working, competent craftsmen.
Steve Greenberg, Founder, Furnishing a Future / Credit: Erica Baker
I mean, no one wakes up when they're 15 and says, 'I want to be homeless without a skill.' Nobody.
“My daughter, who's a Back on My Feet runner, she was my entry to it,” he says. “She had been volunteering with Back on My Feet in Harlem for maybe five years. She works in prison reform. She said, ‘It would be nice if these guys had a skill that was marketable in the marketplace.’ And I decided, based upon what my daughter told me, to give them a skill. Give them a skill that they could actually use and get a real career, get a job where they’re making (to begin) 15 to 18 bucks an hour. When I've trained these guys, they're not master craftsmen. Nobody is in five weeks, but they have enough to get to the bottom rung. That's what I want to do is give them a career.”
"It's the same whether it’s running or picking up a skill—it's being able to do something that they honestly didn't think they could do. It's not that they're great runners, but they got a mental edge in their head that says, ‘I can do this.’ There's no price on that."Steve GreenbergFounderFurnishing a Future
“He has a line around the block every day where he feeds folks who don't have food. It’s caught a lot of national attention. There's a ton of synergy; he's probably one of the best partners we'll ever see. Hopefully we'll find a few more like him,” says Ramon.
Full Circle and Scale
"We have members who become alumni, who then want to volunteer and want to be a part of the organization in a different way," explains Kari. "It's great to watch it come full circle."Kari LindemannNational Marketing Director
One member in Baltimore started his own landscaping business and for every lawn that he mows, he gives a dollar to Back on My Feet. He was so motivated by the program and it made such a difference in his life.
“It’s always amazing to see a member come full circle. Like David," Kari says, "He ran Boston for us in 2018. He's a college graduate, but unfortunately got addicted, first to alcohol and then drugs and had a really rough couple of years dealing with that addiction. He has a great job for a financial services company now, and still comes to run and support new members. He went even further in Boston where he raised $8,000 for Back on My Feet.”
This is one of the major ways that Back on My Feet raises money—FundRacing, they call it.
“Supporters can choose from almost 100 races around the world. We have access to all the majors except Tokyo, so you can run Boston, New York, Chicago, London or Berlin and raise money for us as you run. We had 30 people run the San Francisco Marathon for us recently. Or there are local 5Ks… it kind of depends on what level of race you want to do, but people can raise money through those individual races for Back on My Feet,” says Kari, “We always need feet on the street and we are always looking for more training partners like Accenture or Furnishing a Future to help our members prepare for employment, or more employment partners, like Marriott International and Rosa’s Pizza to get them employed.”
Notes of gratitude and encouragement are posted on the bulletin board of Rosa's Pizza. / Credit: Erica Baker
Though morning runs are the first step, CEO Katy Sherratt clarifies the real end game: "We're not just there to tick a box and get you a job. We're there to do that ultimately, but we're there to make sure it's the right job, that it's a livable wage and that it's a sustainable life change."
"Our support system is very different from anything else that individuals experiencing homelessness encounter. Over time, they feel a sense of belonging; they belong to Back on My Feet, the community."
That sense of belonging isn't something you'll find in a homeless shelter or on the street, and for the thousands who have become a part of Back on My Feet, it has made all the difference.
Running has long been known as a sport dedicated to helping people. Competitors in the Boston Marathon help raise money for causes that help improve people's lives around the world. But Back on My Feet takes the social change potential of running to another level still. By harnessing the accountability, motivation, confidence, discipline and camaraderie that are integral to any running club experience, this organization helps individuals facing homelessness to build community and unlock the door to a better future.
The simple act of running is helping to chart a new course for people who have struggled with homelessness but desire real and lasting change.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly