Thursday, October 24, 2013

Step by step brings hope for homeless

10/9/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

It’s 7 a.m. and my clock radio is spilling out the morning news.  As I snuggle down under my warm blankets for a little more sleep my mind starts to wake up as I take in what has happened overnight.
Inevitably, the news is bad.

Recently, a boat packed with African immigrants sank off the coast of Italy. In New York, arrests are being made after dozens of motorcyclists swarmed an SUV (some injured in the process), pulled the driver from his vehicle and beat him. In Myanmar, men armed with machetes to kill and destroy, continue to attack villages. The inhabitants of planet earth are literally taking a beating.

As I process this news, I don’t think I’m alone in asking, “What is our world coming to?” Nor am I the only one to look around helplessly and say, “I’m just one person. How can I help make things better?”

Well, today’s column is about one person who decided there was something she could do to help  (not harm) one segment of our population-the homeless. It’s a subject that Lane County residents are familiar with: How do we help the homeless help themselves?

I came across Anne Mahlum’s answer to the problem while searching the web for information on Eugene’s situation. The SLEEPS (Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep) camp protest was in full steam. The subject was so complex that the more I read, the more confused I became. “There are no solutions,” I thought.

Mahlum would disagree. She is an attractive, young, blond woman who took up running to save her sanity. Her father was an alcoholic and running was her way of dealing with his alcoholism as it affected her. Running was therapy. “Running,” she says, “really is a metaphor for life. You just have to take it one step at a time.”

At 5 a.m. on most days of the week, Mahlum could be found running the dark streets of Philadelphia. A veteran marathoner, her route took her by a shelter for the homeless where the men would cheer her on. She would wave and pay them scant attention. But one day something changed.

She remembers thinking, “Why am I running past these guys? I’m moving my life forward every day and these guys are standing in the same spot.” On that day in 2007, ‘Back on my Feet,’ was born.

Mahlum contacted the shelter for permission; got donations of running gear and invited the shelter residents to join her three days a week on a mile long run. She no longer passed them by. She was including them in her life. Requirements were simple. They must live in an affiliated facility; be clean and sober for 30 days; attend an informational session and sign a commitment form.

Other runners in the community volunteered to run with and encourage the shelter residents. Along with the male and female shelter residents, the diverse group included doctors, janitors, and students. Their run between 5:30-6 a.m. begins in a circle with a request to say your name and something you like about yourself. One man smiles and offers, “I like getting my life back together.”

When they run, “You can’t tell who’s homeless and who’s not,” says Mahlum. “All you can tell is who’s the fastest. ‘’’

The informal runs eventually morphed into a program that has returned productive individuals to society. Mahlum says it’s simple. “We’re all looking for the same thing. We all want to be appreciated, loved and supported. People don’t want to be in shelters, they just don’t know how NOT to be there.”

‘Back on my Feet’ gives shelter residents shoes and gear but their running commitment includes community and social building opportunities. With their participation in multiple activities they earn access to job training partners, housing opportunities and $2500 in financial aid. It’s a success, Mahlum says, because runners are motivated, reliable, ambitious and responsible.

One of those motivated individuals is shown in a video. Kenny joined a running team in 2008. Until then he had been stuck in a shelter. He couldn’t get out. He says, “As I began to run, my mind became healthier. My body became healthier. And my decisions became healthier.” Today Kenny says it was like a marathon to get where he is but now he’s so happy. “Working consistently around the city (in landscaping) is a beautiful thing. Now I’ve got my own place. My own kitchen. My own shower. There’s nothing like your own.”

‘Back on my Feet’ now has 10 chapters to help in their homeless outreach. And because of a simple team running program, hundreds of homeless individuals have found meaning in life. They have found light at the end of a long tunnel. Yes, they now have jobs and housing but they have something more—hope and purpose

Anne Mahlum has won many awards for her work but she’s not impressed with herself. She’s impressed with the people she’s helping. “Put people in a positive environment,” she says, and it’s amazing what can happen. I’m not the one changing their lives. They’re doing it for themselves.”

Now, every morning when I wake up to the news, I think of Anne Mahlum and our community of volunteers: our local Relief Nursery; Community Sharing; Parent Partnership; hospital and school volunteers and so many others who bring sunshine to darkness.

Yes, the world seems to be spinning out of control. But there is no end to hope. One person can certainly make a difference but working together we can change our world. Step by step by step.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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