Anne Mahlum asked a group of homeless men in Philadelphia if they’d like to join in on her morning jogs. Here’s the story behind the insight that is changing the face of poverty in America.
The homeless men all stood together outside of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at 13th & Vine in Philadelphia. Many of the men knew each other or had come to know each other through the weeks and months they stood waiting for breakfast. For whatever highs and lows they experienced during the week, Sunday meant structure. It meant warm food, but perhaps just as much it meant they had somewhere to be.
“Hundreds of times,” Anne Mahlum told me. As she said it her eyes fixated for a moment on the hardwood table in front of us and I could tell she was projecting a memory’s image onto it. She looked back up at me with a hint of personal disappointment in her brows, “I ran past them hundreds of times….”
Going on an early morning run was Anne’s routine. Even at 12-years-old she was innately drawn to structure and had “her entire life mapped out.” But at sixteen Anne faced what she called “a hard dose of reality.” Her father, who she still affectionately refers to as “her superhero,” was battling with a gambling addiction. She was helpless as she watched the addiction disrupt her family and bring the man she so admired into emotional and financial bankruptcy. In her young mind, she believed hard work and the absolute pursuit of perfection could help make the problems better. So she racked up the college degrees and put herself on the fast track to what she thought success was.
But there was a problem. Each day she woke she felt like something in her life was missing. Her morning jogs started to become less about physical conditioning and more about, as she put it, “staying emotionally fresh and open to myself.” It was through this frame of mind, on a day like any other in May 2007, that insight struck. This wouldn’t be like all those hundreds of times where she ran past and waved. “I actually felt it,” she said of the insight, “…and I called the shelter that day to see if those men would want to join me.”
Five weeks later would be their first official run together. Anne had received all sorts of used shoes donations but in the end she thought, “What kind of message would that bring if I had decent shoes and I handed them worn out shoes?” So she brought the men proper running shoes and asked them to sign the “Dedication Contract.”
“The contract was simple but they saw the seriousness of it in my eyes,” she said. “I stood before those nine men and said here’s the deal: You are pledging to have a positive attitude, to run three days a week, to never be late and to respect and support your teammates. Are you in?”
On July 3, 2007, the day before Independence Day, nine homeless men put one foot in front of the other and through grit and teamwork and sweat began to feel the rhythm of their own independence. Back On My Feet was born. “I believed in them with my whole being. When somebody believes in you, even just one person, you begin to believe in yourself. These guys just needed someone to believe in them.”
“I’ll never forget that first run,” Anne said. “Religion, race…none of it mattered. Running doesn’t discriminate. They were at all different levels of fitness, but they all helped each other, checked in with each other to make sure their teammates were okay. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. To save myself from personal despair, I ran. I knew what it gave to me, but to see others blossom because of it? It was beautiful. So often these men are defined as homeless and that’s it. But in our first one mile run I saw they were beyond homelessness. They were funny and empathetic and tough. Here we are.”
Here’s a recap of where they are. From that first morning Anne and Back On My Feet have garnered nationwide attention. In December of that same year ABC World News ran a report on them and in 2008 Anne was named as one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes. Runner’s World did a feature story on them in January 2009 and their Baltimore chapter launched in March 2009. They rolled out their financial literacy programs in February 2010. Between March 2010 and March 2011 chapters started in DC, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Indianapolis. In January 2013 they launched their Los Angeles chapter and found that 743 members obtained employment and 519 obtained housing.
Meaningful as these statistics are, they can’t begin to speak to the reclaiming of dreams deferred. These men no longer just have somewhere to be. They have somewhere to go, and they are getting there one step at a time.
This post was brought to you by American Express. Anne is just one Member of the American Express #PassionProject. See all of the inspiring stories here.
Photography by Carlette Norwood.