When I first interviewed Anne Mahlum in March 2009, she had just returned from a gala ceremony as one of CNN’s “Top 10 Heroes of the Year.” Mahlum created the Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization Back on My Feet (BoMF) in 2007 when her running route past the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission developed into an opportunity for homeless persons to overcome their personal challenges and struggles.
Running Is Motivation
In her first BoMF run, Mahlum was joined by nine individuals who were looking to leave behind years of addiction, homelessness and legal problems, and use running as a motivational tool toward better times. Following the motto, “Moving the homeless forward one step at a time,” the original nine grew to over 80 persons from five shelters across Philadelphia. Running the streets turned into running marathons and many BoMF participants moved on to find full-time employment, housing and hope.
In 2009, Mahlum said she hoped “interest will grow and programs will expand nationwide.” Well, her goal has become a reality with the 11th Chapter of BoMF opening in Los Angeles in October 2013. The organization—now a national for-purpose 501(c)3—does not provide food and shelter to the homeless, but instead offers coaching, resources, financial aid, job training and access to employment opportunities.
How Does it Work?
Back on My Feet partners with local facilities such as half-way houses and shelters. If a resident has been at the facility for at least 30 days, he or she can join a running team. They set goals and sign a dedication contract. Then the running begins. Teams meet for runs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with optional runs on Saturday for those who wish to train for marathons. If members maintain a 90% attendance rate, they move on to Phase 3. This Phase is where participants work toward an independent lifestyle, have access to educational and job training openings and can apply for financial aid. Nearly 75% of members are in Phase 3 of the program—a true testament to its success rate.
Soon after I spoke with Anne in March 2009, BoMF started its expansion—gradually opening chapters in Atlanta, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, New York and Washington, D.C. in addition to the original Philadelphia Chapter. “It’s always been the plan,” said Mahlum, a month prior to the launch of BoMF’s L.A. Chapter. “There was just something very spiritual about the idea knowing that it could help a lot of people, but still you reflect and say, ‘Wow, how did all this get done?’ But when you combine passion, compassion and ambition…it’s incredible what can happen.”
With any new organization, bumps in the road and growing pains are expected, and Mahlum has had her share. Each new chapter has brought with it a plethora of learning experiences that have helped Mahlum and her team leaders grow and improve. Some of those leaders include original members from other chapters. “They [members] become team leaders and lead the runs in the morning,” Mahlum shares. “We also have a big alumni network where members come back as speakers. It is really important for members to keep their relationship with the organization evolving. It is a key factor in their recovery and helps them become self-sufficient and improves their self-worth and self-value.”
The Back on My Feet L.A. Chapter has opened locations Downtown and in Long Beach and Santa Monica. On October 18th 2013, BoMF kicked things off with a big event and the first mile run on the streets of Downtown, followed by a corporate breakfast for about 700 people at the JW Marriot in L.A. LIVE. “When we launch in a new market, we make a big deal out of it,” Mahlum says. “It kind of feels like Christmas—it’s very inspirational. People leave feeling purposeful and excited about the work and the mission of BoMF.”
Forty-six percent of BoMF members move forward to get jobs, homes and/or job training. Since the fall of 2008, more than 1,200 people have found employment through BoMF’s partnership programs, which includes partners such as: Marriot, AT&T, White Lodging, Bimbo Bakeries, ACE Cash Express and Accenture, who assist with résumé writing and computer and job interview skills. Local community colleges also help with grants to aid those who need to further their educations and hone necessary skills to enter the job market.
If you’d like to support BoMF, you can do so in several ways. Teams run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and walkers, joggers and runners are welcome to join in. Your company can sponsor a BoMF event, help with funding, or assist with training and employment opportunities for members. There is also an array of cool men’s and women’s apparel available on the website (www.backonmyfeet.org). All proceeds go back into maintaining BoMF’s national program.
One thing is for sure, Back on My Feet has taken a unique approach to helping the homeless, and one that is working. Sometimes thinking outside the box is just what we need in order to tackle the tough issues. It takes true leaders with a vision and the courage to move ideas forward despite the obstacles. Hopefully we will see more ideas like Back on my Feet come to fruition.