March 2009

Anne Mahlum motivates homeless to run and overcome

Philadelphia is called “The City of Brotherly Love” and is known as the home of the  Liberty Bell, signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the cheesesteak. But with high statistics of murder and crime reported daily on local news, it is tough to notice the people working hard to make a positive difference in this historic city. Anne Mahlum has emerged to bring the feeling of “brotherly love” back to Philadelphia and is expanding that sentiment nationally.

A native of Bismarck, N.D., Mahlum moved to Philadelphia four years ago. An athlete for as long as she can remember, Mahlum frequently hit the streets at 5:30 a.m. for her daily run. “I have always found running to be a stress reliever,” she said. “Each step reminds me that there are no unachievable dreams or unsolvable problems.” Along her route she would pass homeless people standing outside a shelter, and as the days went by, Mahlum developed a good rapport with them. “They would smile and wave, as they became comfortable with me passing by. I started wondering why I was passing them.” One day, Mahlum decided to take a chance and went into the shelter with the idea to get homeless people involved in running. “They thought I was crazy at first,” she said. But when the director at the shelter proposed the idea, nine people were on board and “Back on My Feet” (BOMF) was born. Wearing new donated shoes and clothing, the original nine, along with Mahlum and volunteers, ran their first mile through the streets of Philadelphia.

Following the motto, “Moving the homeless forward one step at a time,” BOMF members have since completed numerous marathons, including the Philadelphia 8K. BOMF has motivated more than 80 homeless people from five shelters to try and better their lives.

How does running motivate? “Running helps build confidence and self-esteem,” Mahlum said. “When we run, we are a team…a family. This helps them get back on a positive road in their lives. But it doesn’t happen overnight—it takes dedication and hard work.” As BOMF has expanded, so has the interest. With more than 400 volunteers (some also participating runners), BOMF has made national news and is sponsored by Nike, which donates running shoes and clothing to the cause of this nonprofit organization. “We have all different kinds of people participating in our marathons,” said Mahlum. “Running is the great equalizer. You can’t tell who is a doctor and who is homeless when we’re out there running together.” Those who stick with the program have the chance to win $1,000 in a contest.

But, BOMF is not about running only. The program has included bowling nights, practice with the Philadelphia 76ers on the basketball court and the BOMF bashes, which feature inspirational speeches and dinner. The success that has come from BOMF includes stories of nine homeless persons who have found employment and a new place to live. Individual stories, such as Vernon’s—who overcame drug addiction, now has a full-time job and has reconnected with his family—are what fuels motivation for others to do the same. “People need to understand that addiction can cause someone to lose everything including their home and families,” said Mahlum.

As for her own life: “I feel more alive than ever,” Mahlum said. “I have found my purpose in life.” Mahlum’s personal goal is to run in a marathon on every continent by the time she is 30. At 27, she only has two more to go—Australia and Antarctica. On the national level, Mahlum has received great exposure on ABC and CNN, where she was featured as one of the top 10 “Heroes of the Year,” in 2008 (out of 4,000 entries), a title which Mahlum is grateful for, but humble about. “It is a little overwhelming,” she said. “I feel they [the homeless] are the real heroes.” When it comes to goals for BOMF, Mahlum hopes interest will continue to grow and programs will expand nationwide. “I really believe there is a hunger for human decency,” she says.


Sidebar: Getting involved

You can make donations to Back on My Feet through the United Way at their Web site Those in the Philadelphia area interested in becoming a member or attending an event, can take part in an orientation held on the first and third Wednesday of each month. For more information, visit