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Fit City: Back On My Feet running program for homeless coming to Austin

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Renaulda (left) and LaTara (second from right) members of the Back On My Feet running program take part in the Too Hot to Handle 5K in Dallas this summer with Laurie Dias (second from left) and Rick Wilson.

Athletes can relate when Anne Mahlum says running keeps her strong, stable and gives her a “ridiculous sense of happiness.”

“It’s more than working out and staying fit,” says the founder of Back On My Feet, a nonprofit program that uses running as a way for homeless people to gain self-sufficiency. “It’s all about moving forward in life. It’s really empowering.”

In January, Austin will become the 10th city with a Back On My Feet program.

The organization recruits homeless people, who pledge to run with a group at 5:30 a.m. three mornings a week. If a member misses more than one run during the first 30 days, he or she is out. During the next phase of the program, they continue running, but get access to job training, financial aid and life skills classes.

Mahlum says she created the organization almost by accident. As a teenager growing up in North Dakota, she watched her father’s drug, alcohol and gambling addictions tear apart her family. She coped by running.

“Running has always made me feel like I can do anything,” she says.

Mahlum, 31, started Back On My Feet in 2007, while living in Philadelphia. Nearly every day she ran by a homeless shelter. One day some of the men there waved at her, and she started to build a rapport. They reminded her of her father.

“I soon realized I was cheating them. Why did I get to be the runner and they had to be the homeless guys?” she said.

She persuaded the director of the shelter to let her start a running club. She brought the handful of interested residents new shoes and running clothes donated by a local store. She made them sign a contract, promising to attend three mornings a week. They had to come with a positive attitude; they had to respect their teammates.

“I demanded nothing but excellence and no excuses,” she says. “It was a 100 percent commitment. Those were the rules.”

They showed up. They tracked their miles. Slowly, they changed the way they saw themselves. “It was almost as if they were waiting for someone to expect something greater from them,” she says. They ran for the same reasons anyone might run: “to try something new, to get healthy, to meet people and to see how far they could go.”

Since then the program has expanded to Boston, Chicago, Dallas and six other cities. About half of those who start the program ultimately get a job and live on their own, says Casey Venella, Mahlum’s assistant. Most stay in the program about six months. Members have landed jobs in housekeeping or as servers, front desk clerks and even building engineers.

“Our members don’t want to be homeless; they just don’t know how not to be homeless,” Mahlum says.

In Austin, Back on My Feet will work with employment partners Marriott and White Lodging in Austin, as well as national partner AT&T, which provides financial and volunteer support.

Austin was chosen because it’s open to new ideas, has a vibrant fitness community and a homeless problem, Venella said.

Back On My Feet doesn’t work with individuals off the street. It works through residential facilities. In Austin, it will partner with Front Steps and the Salvation Army.

It’s also working with local running store RunTex, which will host volunteer orientations starting in November. About 200 volunteers are needed to lead running groups and do other work. Organizers also hope to raise $200,000 in funding.

A kickoff is planned for Jan. 28, when the first Austin members will run their first mile alongside volunteers and supporters. A corporate breakfast will follow. For more information, go to www.backonmyfeet.org.