Running and homelessness – it might seem like they go together like toothpaste and orange juice, but our friends at Back On My Feet think they’re more like peas and carrots. This national nonprofit uses running to transform the lives of homeless individuals. WellATL hit the pavement with Mandy Putnam, Director of Communications and Corporate Relations for the Atlanta chapter of Back On My Feet, for this week’s Friday Five.
Give us the scoop on how Back On My Feet works.
Back On My Feet uses running to help individuals experiencing homelessness move their lives forward through running. Our goal isn’t to create runners within the homeless population, it’s to use running as a first step towards independent living. We have amazing volunteers that go to our partner facilities (Gateway Center, Trinity House, Salvation Army, and City of Refuge) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at either 5:30 or 5:45 a.m. to run one to four miles with our members.
This works for a lot of reasons. Running makes you feel good and starting your day doing something so positive sets the tone for the rest of your day. Getting up early takes discipline and that is something that shows our hiring partners that our members are serious, but more than that it’s the community. We are offering a new family, community, and identity to people that need love and support.
We also work to change the perception of homelessness. When you come to our runs, you can’t tell who is homeless and who isn’t. We all look the same in running gear. As I’ve gotten to know our members, I’ve realized that the homeless population is diverse, and there is no one thing that leads people to that situation. People think the homeless are lazy, but our members have run marathons. That’s not lazy. Most of them work or are working hard to find jobs. Not everyone who is homeless lives on the streets and asks for money.
You all are making a difference, one mile at a time. What have you accomplished so far and what’s next?
As of August 31, with the help of more than 400 volunteers, we have served 268 individuals experiencing homelessness. Eighty-five have gotten jobs and 93 have moved into independent housing. Collectively, our members have run 22,286 miles. But we would love to keep growing. There are so many shelters/facilities doing incredible work, we would love to bring our program to more places. We just launched our first women’s team on August 1, and we would like to serve more women, more veterans, and maybe add a youth team.
Atlanta is one chapter of the larger BOMF organization. How does our city fit into the big picture and how did this whole thing get started in the first place?
Atlanta is one of 11 Back On My Feet chapters nationwide. It’s great to think that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there are people across the country getting up early to run at homeless shelters. It helps connect us all. Atlanta launched as the eighth chapter on 11/11/11. Nationally, Back On My Feet started because our founder, Anne Mahlum, ran past a shelter on her morning runs and developed a rapport with some of the people she saw standing outside. She thought about all the positive things that running does in her life and realized it could help them too. She talked to the shelter about starting a running program, and they laughed at her and told her that homeless people don’t run. But they let her move forward, and nine people came out for that first run on July 3, 2007, in Philadelphia.
Any particular moment spring to mind that keeps you passionate about your job?
Our members keep me passionate. It’s one thing for me to cite statistics and tell you that what we do is changing lives, but it’s another to hear them say it. The passion they feel for this organization is amazing. Some of my favorite member quotes:
“I blossomed into a person I didn’t think I could be. I have focus, an agenda, and a purpose.” —Demethris
“It’s family. We express our love out there running, participating, and not giving up on each other.” —Meshac
“I regained the family that I lost, and things I could have never imagined are now open to me.” —Eugene
“When we get downstairs in that group, there’s nothing but love. There’s no race, no boundaries, nothing but love. In that group, we are all whole different people. Nobody’s judging us – you accept me. Being accepted, we have another shot at life.” —Floyd
“Back On My Feet came into my life three years ago and it is because of the unconditional love I received that I was able to love myself. “ —Russell
I love running! What can I do to help out? But I’ve also got this friend (yeah, um, a friend) who hates running because… uh… it bothers her knees. Can she still be involved?
Anyone who is interested in running with us can sign up for orientation. We need all speeds and levels. We have a guy who runs a 19-minute 5K, so we need people who can keep up with him, but we also have people who are just starting and doing run/walk combos. Those who don’t run can sign up for our newsletter or follow us on social media to find out when we need volunteers for events. Our next two are the Atlanta 10-Miler on October 26 and our bash on November 6. We have a cheer zone at the 10-Miler and need lots of volunteers to help us earn $5,000. The Bash is our gala/benefit dinner and our biggest fundraiser of the year. We would love for people to buy tickets or volunteer.