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Like many big American cities, the officials of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have spent a lot of time and money on programs to help the city's homeless. But one Philadelphian, 27-year-old Anne Mahlum, came up with a program all on her own. She gave up a high-paying career to help the homeless through her passion: running.
The sun is barely up, but Anne Mahlum and her fellow runners are already gathered outside a gas station in Philadelphia. "I was running like I do every morning," Anne says, "It was pretty early, like 5 AM. I live in what most people call an up-and-coming area of Philadelphia."
Up until two years ago, Mahlum used run alone every morning.
"When I was running there was these groups of guys outside in the morning, just hanging out. I am from North Dakota and what I do is wave and say good morning and I smile and wave at them. They first looked at me like I was a bit crazy, but after I kept doing it a few days they got comfortable with my presence," she said.
Anne says that running has been a big part of her life ever since she was 16, when her father's drug abuse broke her family apart. She says running was an important spiritual support then and still is more than ten years later.
"Running saved my life. It taught me discipline and respect and I feel like I was the person I want to be when I was running. There is just something about the permanent motion of it that makes me feel alive and makes me feel excited and [believe] things are going to be OK," she says, "When I saw these guys who reminded me of my dad, I thought this is my second chance."
Anne got approval from a local homeless shelter to start a running club, which started with nine people. "After the first week…I thought this could really be the first step in changing people's lives," she said.
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A few weeks Anne gave up her high-paying job to focus on the running club full time. She formed a non-profit organization called Back on My Feet. Her goal was to use organized running as a tool to help develop discipline and respect. The organization then guides members in finding educational and employment opportunities.
Today team captain James Thorpe leads the group in a half marathon. "Everybody wants to be loved and be a part of a community and this creates a running community," he says, "All of us know as soon as you show up at a run, everybody is a runner."
It takes some resolve to join the club. Three days a week runners meet before sunrise. They cannot use alcohol or drugs and must participate in employment counseling.
James Singletary was one of the nine original members. "I used drugs for 35 years. I've [been through everything] that's possible to go through … the lowest. When I first started out running with them the first month, I didn't think I could do a mile. There were times when I thought I wanted to give up, but no, I know I came here for a reason and I want to complete something in life," he said.
"When I first started I couldn't run two blocks," Morris Gates says, "It was hard. It was a gradual progress. This is Morris's first half marathon. His son, a soldier in the army, came out to support him. "I am proud of my father," Chris says, "what he achieved. He is dedicated and he started something and he is finishing it, so I am very proud of him ... he definitely motivated us to come out and support, so I am going to run the 10 miles with him today."
There are 16 homeless runners participating in the race today. When Anne started the Back on My Feet running club, some people were skeptical that running could solve such a complex social problem. But Anne believes that developing a sense of self-esteem is the most important first step. "You can see the smile that takes over their face, you can see they are becoming really proud of who they are, and that's incredible," Anne says, "Understanding what it's like to be part of a team and support each other, that's what life is all about."
Since its inception in 2007, Back on My Feet hasn't stopped growing. It now has more than several hundred members and has branches in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
"Running really is a metaphor for life, there is always another mile," Anne says, "You just have to take it one step at a time."