In 2007, when Back on My Feet Founder and CEO, Anne Mahlum, was 26 years old and living in Philadelphia, she was at a crossroads in her life. For the past several months, the idea of her purpose had been all consuming – she was willing to do anything to find it, she just didn’t know where to look. Soon she realized it was right beneath her feet.
Running was Anne’s staple. She became a runner when she was 16 to get through a turbulent time for her family due to her dad’s gambling addiction. Anne found clarity and strength in the movement of running. It helped her to understand that you must take things one step at a time. It also helped Anne to realize that difficult roads lead to difficult choices – you either persevere, or turn around and make excuses. Running helped Anne discover who she was and what she loved about herself. Ten years later, in May of 2007 at 5:30 a.m. on the streets of Philadelphia, Anne began to form a relationship with several men outside of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. This is when she realized that she could help these people if she stopped running by them and started running with them.
Anne called the Mission, and with a little persistence, received permission to start an official running club with nine guys living in the shelter. Anne got new running shoes donated and gave them running clothes and socks. She had one requirement, anyone who joined must sign what she called a “Dedication Contract,” committing to:
- showing up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 a.m.
- being on time
- respecting yourself
- supporting teammates
Each runner, including Anne, signed and dated the document and the first one-mile run took place July 3. In a week, the group grew to add 10 more people as volunteers. The morning runs created a community that respected equality and promoted and rewarded positive behavior. Friendships were formed and smiles were constant. Anne made two powerful observations that helped her to realize this growing community could be so much more than just a running club – this could be the core to changing people’s lives:
- The Members were coming out every day of their own volition. Anne believed (and still does!) that voluntary behavior is the only way change is possible. No one was forcing or threatening the individuals experiencing homelessness to be on that corner at 6 a.m. They were there because they wanted to be.
- While recording how far people ran after the morning runs, each Member waited anxiously to receive credit for their hard work. It was clear: no matter how many differences there are between us, the similarities are what connect us and make us human. We all want to be noticed, appreciated, recognized, valued, cared for and loved. It is these emotions that drive us every day.
The theoretical question that Anne asked herself was, “if we can change the way people see themselves, can we change the direction of their lives?” She felt very strongly that if we could help people experiencing homelessness see themselves as deserving, capable, hardworking, responsible, disciplined, focused and reliable, it would be possible for them to move toward independence. This question is no longer a theory – it is a reality.
Today, 46% of Residential Members in the Back on My Feet program move their lives forward with a job, independent housing or both.