Hamilton, 61, and young Whitney Hamilton III will run in the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend 5K on Jan. 5. The veteran recently reunited with his son and grandson after decades of struggling with homelessness and addiction. At his lowest point, Hamilton lived out of his van for six months in 2014.
Completing the 5K at Disney World will mark a milestone along Hamilton's journey to better health and a better life. Two years ago, after hitting bottom, he joined the Indianapolis chapter of Back on My Feet, a national nonprofit that combats homelessness through the power of running, combined with community support, employment and housing assistance.
Like many, Hamilton had never run before, but the program helped build his confidence, strength and self-esteem, which guided him to a job, a home and reconnecting with his family. He quit smoking and lost 22 pounds, Today, he continues to run three days a week with Back on My Feet as an alumni member to stay in shape and to help mentor others in the program.
"I come back to give others hope and encouragement," Hamilton said. "I tell them, 'Keep coming back. It works if you work it.' "
I first interviewed Hamilton for an IndyStar story in 2015. He told me how he came to Back on My Feet eight months earlier, jobless and homeless. He recalled that on the first day of the training program, he wasn't sure he could make it. "But I started by walking; I knew it would be good exercise," he said.
With a little help from his friends, he started running, and that day in 2015, he wore his accomplishments around his neck: medals for a 5K and an 8K, a 50-mile medallion for accumulated miles with Back on My Feet. He's added more miles and more medals since then.
"Not bad for an old guy," he said.
"I'm a different person today than I was when I started here. I can't stop running. It helps other people to see someone who's made it, and I want to be that person."
In 2016, Back on My Feet received a $100,000 grant from Cigna and the Cigna Foundation. In recognition of his commitment to better health and independence, Hamilton's expenses for travel, hotel, race entry and passes to Disney parks are covered.
"When I heard Cigna had invited me to participate in their 5K at Disney World with my grandson, I was so excited," he said. "This is a dream come true."
Hamilton has more to look forward to in 2017 — a new granddaughter. It will be the first time he will be present for the birth of a grandchild.
Chrissy Vasquez, Back on My Feet Indianapolis executive director, said it's been inspiring watching Hamilton take steps to improve his life.
"Through our running program, the camaraderie and encouragement from members, staff and volunteers, Whitney gained the confidence and health he needed to make the next steps in his recovery from addiction," she said. "We're especially proud of how much Whitney pays it forward to others. He is a great role model for us all."
To learn more about Back on My Feet, visit indianapolis.backonmyfeet.org.