April 18, 2014 by Allison Starr
The Philadelphia-based organization Back on My Feet launched a new team April 9 based out of Veteran’s House, which will be hosting runs near Drexel’s campus, at 33rd and Baring streets.
BoMF is an organization dedicated to encouraging self-sufficiency in the homeless. Its success is measured in how many residential members (those experiencing homelessness) acquire a job or independent housing. The Philadelphia teams run at 5:30 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and members have the option to run in groups on Saturdays as well.
“We chose the facility because our missions were aligned, there was interest from the community at the facility, and we felt confident we could garner support from the neighborhood,” Evan Cantiello, the program director, wrote in an email. “We are attuned to the best practices for folks who have seen active duty. …We are also sensitive to physical limitations as a result of service time. Several members walk instead of run.”
Around May 2007, Anne Mahlum, founder and CEO, met a group of men who spent time at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at 13th and Vine streets. Anne, who ran recreationally, invited the group to join her. On July 3, 2007, before running a mile with Anne, nine members signed a dedication contract. The organization gained national media attention in the December 14, 2007, edition of ABC World News. There are 10 other chapters nationwide, located in Baltimore, Washington, D.C, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New York City and Los Angeles.
The Philadelphia chapter is the largest and is affiliated with six facilities, four of which are in Center City. There are two located in West Philadelphia, one being the new team at Veterans’ House at 33rd and Baring streets, the other, a women’s shelter located at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue.
“There’s about 10 to 15 people [on each team],” Cathryn Sanderson, director of communications and corporate relations for the Philadelphia chapter, said. “We typically have 50 residential members [at one time].” She added that there is a waiting list because only a certain number of people can be residential members at one time due to limited resources.
Philadelphia is also the organization’s largest “fundracing” market. “Fundracing” allows supporters of the group to donate money and earn race gear at the same time. This also guarantees that the “fundracer” will have a spot in the race, even if it is sold out.
Residential members are also able to reserve spots. A major event for the organization is called “in24.” The event features four races: a 24-hour “ultra-marathon,” a relay challenge, a glow-in-the-dark 8.4 mile run and a 5,000 meter run.
Individuals interested in being nonresidential or volunteer members need not only be interested in running; they can also help coordinate events or donate their used sneakers. Curious potential nonresidential members are asked to attend an hour-long orientation session.
The program is organized into several steps. First, BoMF partners with a facility dedicated to serving those experiencing homelessness and holds orientation sessions for potential residential members. These members must have lived at the facility for at least 30 days. The next step involves actual participation in the program. Besides taking part in the week’s runs, residential members also attend monthly social events and local races. Their attendance and miles ran are tracked using a custom database called “Footprints.”
“We’re just there to support each other, since not everyone is in shape,” Juliana Muganza, a Drexel alumna and a current nonresidential member of the organization, said. “Sometimes people will walk.”
She explained that after stretching, the runners say the “Serenity Prayer.” The organization, however, is not affiliated with a particular religion. Muganza mainly works with the residential members who live at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue, and they run for about an hour down Chestnut or Locust streets.
After 30 days, residential members with at least 90 percent attendance move onto “Next Steps.” About 75 percent of the residential members are in this stage, and they consult with BoMF staff to create a plan for independent living.
“Each person has a very individual path. The focus is how to move out of the shelter, what jobs are available. [It’s] pretty comprehensive,” Sanderson said. “We have financial literacy classes [about budgeting and managing paychecks].”
BoMF also works with Tools for Success, a program that helps residential members develop skills for the job search. Financial aid is also available for one-time purchases, such as U-Hauls, that residential members may need.
Once residential members acquire independent housing or a job, they become alumni members. “I’ve seen multiple, at least six people, obtain self-sufficiency,” Muganza said. “It’s always fun to meet them at different events.” She added that the alumni members remain active in the organization, continuing to run with their group and working on a committee.
Sanderson has witnessed many success stories. “Back on My Feet really helps you to see that there’s not one type of homelessness. [There are] many successes, some of which we measure, some of which we don’t,” she said.
“We’ve heard of people reconnecting with their families, gaining self-respect and confidence,” Sanderson continued. “We’ve had numerous people going through recovery [from addictions wanting to change] for [their] team.”
As a whole, the organization has served 3,746 residential members, assisted 1,312 members in obtaining employment and assisted 927 members in obtaining housing. They have also run over 341,394 miles.