It Is Never Too Early To Get Back On Your Feet
by Noam Waksman
The streets of downtown Manhattan are pretty quiet at 5:30am in late October. A truck or two rumble through taking advantage of the absence of traffic and a few scattered individuals braving the early morning chill hurry along, but for the most part there is not too much activity as people savor their last hour or so of sleep until the morning commute begins in earnest.
On the corner of Lafayette and Franklin in Chinatown, however, just a few blocks north of City Hall, a group of 15 people are huddling up in the dark. Some of these people know each other and share a familiar and spirited greeting in spite of the time and the sleep in their eyes, and some of them don’t know each other so instead engage in equally spirited introductions. Some of these people have jobs in the city, and some are in the process of looking. Some of these people came from their apartments to the huddle, and some of them are homeless and came from the New York City Rescue Mission across the street.
The common bond among these people—other than the fact that they are up before 6:00am and ready to run—is that they are all a part of Back on My Feet, a national organization operating in 12 major cities coast-to-coast with the mission to, “combat homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.” The people who came from their own apartments are volunteers—the community support—and the people who came from the mission are members of the Back on My Feet program, but since they all wear running shoes and a similar combination of running clothes and sweatpants (the members are given new running shoes and gear when they join Back on My Feet), if you didn’t already know these people you wouldn’t be able to tell who came from where—I certainly couldn’t.
That blending together of volunteers and members so that the group appears as one team (Team City Hall in this instance) is intentional and important according to Back on My Feet CEO, Katy Sherratt.
“When you go out on the morning run, whether you’re a member experiencing homelessness, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer—we have all sorts of people volunteer for morning runs—you can’t tell any difference between people,” Sherratt said. “And that’s the first step for the members, to recognize that people do care, someone is out here supporting them.”
In addition to the morning runs, which happen in several places around the city three times a week, Back on My Feet has a crucial job training and placement program called Next Steps. After 30 days running with Back on My Feet, members with a 90% attendance rate get the opportunity to enter Next Steps which provides educational and job placement support, skills training, and housing resources. As of 2015, Back on My Feet had served 6,000+ members, helping more than 4,000 of them to obtain jobs.
Perhaps most impressively from a quantitative impact perspective, Sherratt recently commissioned an Economic Impact Study which found that for every $1.00 invested in Back on My Feet, nearly $2.50 goes back into the US economy.
If the Next Steps program and its impact sounds great to you, but like many people hearing about Back on My Feet for the first time, you are wondering how running a few times a week in the morning helps homeless people, Sherratt would tell you, “Come on a run with us and you will see how.”
I can attest to Sherratt’s statement as I saw exactly how on my run—how self-esteem and confidence grew around me with each step—but if you are unable to make it out, consider Back on My Feet member Hector’s story.
Hector was part of the original Team City Hall crew when it formed about six months ago. A month before the team’s formation, Hector had a home, a job as a truck driver, and certainly did not consider himself a runner. His ex-wife and his son—a marine—ran marathons, but, as Hector puts it, “I thought they were crazy for running that far.”
Then Hector lost his son, and with that loss came the losses of his job, home, and joy as his life crumbled around him.
Hector arrived at the New York City Rescue Mission right around the time Back on My Feet was trying to recruit members from the mission for the brand new Team City Hall. When he heard about the program, he decided that running with Back on My Feet was a way he could honor his son while making some progress in his own life, and he became the first member to sign up.
It was a struggle at first. “When I started running I wanted to give up after just a mile or two,” Hector said, “but then I would think about how I was doing this for my son and I would keep going for him. Running for my son became my purpose each day.”
Now, six months and many runs later, the man who once thought running 26.2 miles was “crazy,” is finishing up his training for the New York City Marathon, which he will run in November with team Back on My Feet.
“When I got to the mission I was broken, but running has saved me. It’s cheaper than therapy [laughs], but it’s also time that I have with my son. Every time I lace up my sneakers, my son is with me. Now, whenever I’m going through something, running is how I deal.”
Hector graduates from the Back on My Feet program in December, and the mission—impressed with his work ethic during his time there—has already offered him a job with them. When thinking about his future, Hector knows what direction he wants to go in.
“I want to go to school and become a counselor,” he said. “I believe it’s my calling to help people struggling, whether it be with homelessness or addition or something else, I want to help them. I think it’s awesome to help the next person, and in that process I help myself.”
On this morning in late October, however, Hector is just another energetic member of Team City Hall trying to make some progress one step at a time.
The bonds among the members of the team are strong and founded on a mutual desire to see the person next to them succeed in running and beyond, but the group is extraordinarily welcoming to new people as well, something I experienced firsthand when I joined them on that Friday morning. I was on the receiving end of many of those previously mentioned spirited introductions, and it was not long at all before I felt like I was a part of something special—something worthy of getting up at 4:15am and taking the subway from Brooklyn to get to.
After introductions, stretching, and the posing of that morning’s question to think about on the run—what is your favorite quality that you see in yourself and others?—it is time to get moving. We run south past City Hall before turning east to the Brooklyn Bridge. Everyone in the group is at a different running level—from first-timers to marathoners—but people naturally buddy up so that nobody runs alone regardless of their pace. The man I ended up chatting with as we ran across the bridge to Brooklyn—he provided me all the early morning energy and encouragement I needed—turned out to be from the town in Connecticut where I went to college. We laughed reminiscing about our favorite hangout spots as we reached Brooklyn and turned around to head back towards the bright lights of Manhattan.
If you have never experienced the Brooklyn Bridge, calm and tourist-free in the pale dark of early morning and the Manhattan skyline, I highly recommend it.
Everyone finishes at different times—Hector was one of the first to do so—, but once members of the team make it back to the corner from which the run started, they enthusiastically and genuinely cheer on all the runners who come in after them, shouting encouragements that cut through the quiet morning.
Once everyone finishes the run and the sun begins to rise, the members of Team City Hall inevitably have to go to their next destination—a job in the city, back to the mission, a networking opportunity, a skills training class, etc. Despite having woken up well before the sun and completing a three mile run, I felt more energized and ready to tackle the day than I had in a long time, and that feeling was shared by the people around me as we huddled up to cool down and share our answers to the daily question before going our separate ways.
There was one last thing to do—a call and response chant done at the end of every run by every team part of Back on My Feet. If you happen to be walking through the streets of downtown Manhattan at 6:30am, you might hear it echoing through the morning:
Who are we?
Back on My Feet!
Where are we from?
New York City!
How long are we going to run?