Life on the run

Lives change one mile at a time with running program that builds new hope and skill

11/17/2010 10:00 PM


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Volunteers and homeless men pray before going on a 2.5 mile run last week as part of a new program seeking to help transition the runners into a better life.

It can be a long road to teach society’s outcasts and people living on the edge that positive things can happen in their lives, but one group in Chicago is spreading the word with a new approach – running.

Back on My Feet launched its Chicago chapter Sept. 22. Its three-person staff and a dozens of volunteers are seven weeks into the program that seeks to change lives of homeless men forever with a tincture of running and social services support.

Countless studies in recent years have gone beyond the basic understanding of the well known cardiovascular benefits from running that have been touted for decades, and applied by a mostly middleclass demographic, show a correlation between good mental health and running.

The program pushed by Back on My Feet is a real place to build core characteristics last or lacking in people’s lives, said Josh Serlin, BOMF program director. The goal is for the runners to turn the basic benefits of running, such as daily discipline, stress relief and a good mental state, into a way of life, he said.

Recently, one of three Chicago groups gathered at Saint Leonard’s on West Warren St. as 5:45 a.m. approached. Stretching, chatting and hugging, the men prepared for the day’s 2.5-mile run with several volunteers and a coach. Groups are limited in size to give a one-on-one volunteer to runner ratio.

“That’s how we greet each other,” said Elton Vaughn, a 35-year-old felon, of the hugging that starts each session. Vaughn said he found brotherly love and unity among his “team” after joining the running group — an additional layer of benefit to put in the life-changing tool box.

“Most of us are jobless and homeless and trying to change our lives,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn has turned the program’s schedule of three weekly runs into a near-daily activity. Running brings structure, personal discipline and commitment to those around him into the daily activity of rebuilding his life. It is a great tool to reduce stress and tension, he said. When the day goes bad Vaughn is mindful of the program and burns frustration by running through the neighborhood around St. Lenard’s.

“It’s not about the miles, I’m participating,” Vaughn said. “They [BOMF] count the miles.”

By participation Vaughn means meeting goals, sharing his life with others in a positive way, learning a trade and taking care of his body.

Serlin said that Vaughn’s attitude is exactly right. Much of the benefit gained from running comes through self-esteem and various mental benefits that often get overlooked when people think solely in terms of miles gained or competition.

“They push one another to higher standards,” Serlin said.

Vaughn considers his running program a blessing when thinking about all the people that have entered his life since joining the running program. He’s been living at Saint Leonard’s for 90 days and said transitioning from prison to a more positive life back in the real world could have been different before Serlin introduced him to the idea of running as a path to a better life.

Now learning a construction trade at a nearby training center, Vaughn has met all walks of life during the morning runs – ex criminals, homeless and jobless run with volunteers of varied backgrounds three days each week. When runners hit a three-month mark a small amount of grant funding and the wider network of social services opens to them.

Started after founder Anne Mahlum had an epiphany about the way running helped her through tough periods in life, BOMF has chapters in Baltimore, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

The runners who reach a 90 percent attendance rate gain access to Next Steps, a social services level that includes job training, financial literacy classes, job partnerships and housing programs. Included in that level is a $1,250 grant available for one-time expenses related to their personal growth or reentry to a more focused life. The small grant is gained in increments starting after three-months in the program and based on 90 percent participation.

According to Serlin, 70 percent of the men see success, which is gauged by moving lives forward through job or housing obtainment and everything else Next Steps has to offer.

“Some success is unquantifiable,” Serlin said.

Erin Serkaian, a spokesperson for BOMF, said some of the Chicago runners have aspiration to do the 2011 Chicago Marathon while others want to get into a home or learn a skill.

From Vaughn’s point of view, having spent three years homeless in Chicago and now transitioning from prison life into something he can be proud of, Back on My Feet is a place where people gain help on two levels: the effects of running and access to a wider network of services. Once involved, runners can see that positive things can happen in their lives, he said. Vaughn is learning a trade in a nearby building maintenance training program and has his sights set on obtaining an longer apprenticeship, a living wage and a good shot a the rest of life.

Inspired partly by the countless volunteers who show up for morning runs with the men and seek absolutely nothing in return, Vaughn is lifted by hope. In this day and age with the economy as bad as it is that level of selflessness is rare, he said.

“To see that people like that exist today is inspiring,” he said. “I’m happy here.”

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