Early-bird runners help homeless find their footing

Will Taylor, Special to the Reporter
Dec. 23, 2013

Back on My Feet Boston: Running club promotes self-sufficiency for homeless people through early morning runs through the city. Above, a group of runners representing Team Rosie’s Place is shown in the South End on a recent morning. 	Photo courtesy Back on My Feet BostonBack on My Feet Boston: Running club promotes self-sufficiency for homeless people through early morning runs through the city. Above, a group of runners representing Team Rosie’s Place is shown in the South End on a recent morning. Photo courtesy Back on My Feet Boston

If you strolled through Boston’s South End before dawn on Friday morning, you might have seen a group of spirited runners cutting through the cold winter air. They set off at 6 a.m., breaking the morning’s quiet with sharp breaths and the punctuating crunch of gritty sidewalk snow with each footfall.

To look at the determined band of nylon- and polyester-clad men and women, you might never have guessed that they set off that morning, as they do three mornings each week, from Hope House, an addiction recovery house in the South End.

They are members of Back on My Feet, a non-profit serving recovery and homeless populations that encourages self-help through running. The program has five locations in the Boston area where groups comprised of homeless or recovering individuals (“residents”) join with volunteers for some early morning exercise.

Organizers, volunteers, and residents all spoke to the myriad benefits– mental, physical, and emotional – of morning running. These can prove especially crucial for men and women trying to turn their lives around.

“When you get up and run at 5:30 or 6 in the morning…it mitigates some of the negative feelings and stuff like that which cause people to turn to their substance,” said Brian Palmer, a current resident at Hope House.

Palmer, originally from Somerville, said he first began running with Back on My Feet to get fit, and that he continued because of the general sense of well-being that running fosters. This sense of well-being is the inspiration and life blood of Back on My Feet.

“At 7:00 or 8:00, the people who ran or walked, they have a sense of accomplishment for their day, and that feeds on itself,” Palmer explained. “[They think] ‘Maybe I will clean my clothes, maybe I will make my bed.’”

Back on My Feet was founded in Philadelphia in 2007, and has since expanded to 11 American cities. Since the opening of its Boston Chapter three years ago, Back on My Feet has recruited 469 residential members in Boston. Of those, 144 have obtained employment, and 115 have obtained housing since becoming members.

Meghan Reilly, a Dorchester resident, volunteers to help train the runners. Reilly started to help in 2010 after noticing a group of the runners at a road race. She is a 7-time marathoner, but only started running in the mornings when she joined Back on My Feet.

“It gives me an opportunity to see more than what I see on a regular basis,” said Meghan, who has long had an interest in addiction recovery, and who also does fundraising for the American Liver Foundation. “I would not necessarily appreciate or understand what other people go through if I wasn’t hearing it from them,” she said.
And while Reilly spoke of empathy, the group cohesion was clear to a reporter who joined the group for their run last Friday morning. Throughout the morning, runners spouted words of encouragement and kept a cheery air in the face of a chilly task.

Alison Sherwood, the director of development at Back on My Feet, spoke to the common humanity brought out in group exercise: “There’s no way to really tell who’s a resident and who’s a non [resident],” Sherwood said about the running groups. “We don’t care…we’re just all runners…we’re all suffering together,” she said.

As to individual benefits, Sherwood described the program as a “disruptive resource,” which breaks negative cycles and creates attainable goals.

“We try to cultivate confidence in little baby steps,” Sherwood said. “For some folks it’s literally walking around the block. It could be running a mile. It could be finishing a 5 k.”

Sherwood said the early morning achievement sets the tone for each day, and the hope is that running success will beget success in the personal and professional realms. “Really it’s [about] that transferrable set of skills that you can take out into life,” said Sherwood.

Cathy Connell is a model of the success that Back on My Feet promotes. Connell joined Back on My Feet as a resident and recovering addict. These days Connell is clean, sober, and independent, and works as a recovery coach and a peer to peer meeting facilitator for the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery. She said Back on My Feet, where she now volunteers, was a huge part of her recovery.

“It’s just a wonderful experience to be greeted so lovingly, happily in the morning, and just facing the world and seeing the city in a whole different way than anybody else in the world would see it,” said Connell. “You get to the point where you have to show up, because you don’t want to let everybody down.”

And Connell – like Palmer, like Reilly, and like many other volunteers and residents – intends to continue showing up.

Back on My Feet Boston will host a New Year’s Day 5k along the Charles River. Go to millenniumreg.com/back-on-my-feet-5k to register.