Ideas: Run for Your Life
Anne Mahlu passed up a job with Comcast to follow her strange vision—help homeless men by getting them to jog.
EARLY IN THE morning of June 6, 2007, a 39-year-old man named Abdullah Dorch walked from Camden, New Jersey, across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philadelphia.
If anyone had asked the good people of Philadelphia, the city officials and boosters invested in holding together the economic and social fabric of the city, they might have said they’d prefer Abdullah just stay across the bridge. Tall and muscular, with dark eyes, a thin mustache and crooked teeth, Abdullah seemed permanently clutched in an offensive posture; that morning he was headachey and nauseous after a seven-day coke binge. He’d done a year in prison for robbery, 10 years for another robbery, and had no known address. Abdullah appeared, on that hot June day, destined to join the already legion ranks of unemployed, drug-addled black men who roam Philadelphia’s streets and gather on the Parkway, making a mockery of our burgeoning image as the Next Great City.
On June 6, 2007, Philadelphia didn’t need another man like Abdullah. And frankly, Abdullah didn’t need Philadelphia. He was just here to try to catch a ride to New York, where he’d been living before he was arrested for robbing a man on the street and sent to Rikers. After he got out of prison, a friend had suggested he head to Camden to straighten up.
Camden? That morning, after a sleepless, coke-filled night, Abdullah decided to start making his way across the bridge. Halfway across, he stopped. “Jesus God,” he said. “I don’t want to die a failure.”
Abdullah was about to get a strange answer to his prayer.
THAT SAME MORNING, a few blocks away, Anne Mahlum, 27, ran out of her apartment at 12th and Hamilton, out of the area between North Philly and the Vine Street Expressway that realtors had taken to calling the “Loft District,” down 13th Street, through the steamy dumpling smell of Chinatown, past the shiny Convention Center, across vacant Market Street, along the quaint antiques shops on Pine, until she hit the vendors setting up in the Italian Market, and then turned back.
Anne, a Bismarck, North Dakota, native, had been running since she was 16, the year her father, a recovering alcoholic, came home and told her mother that he’d gambled away the family’s savings. You could say she was running away from her problems when she disappeared from her house on long evening runs, but as Anne saw it, she was running toward them. She often cried as she ran, burning off the anger at her mother for making her father leave after he’d made that mistake, the anger at her father for bouncing from one addiction, one obsession, to another. Meanwhile, Anne became obsessed with running. Before she was 30, she decided, she would run a marathon on every continent.
Three college degrees later, Anne was in Philadelphia, having moved here from Washington, D.C., for a position at the Committee of Seventy, the city’s government-watchdog nonprofit. The job was simple — to produce the website and marketing materials — but she threw herself into it, and helped in other ways, like setting up the Dash for Democracy, a 5k run.
After two years, she got a good job offer at Comcast in government affairs, and said yes. But something nagged at her. She wanted something greater. Was meant, she felt, for something greater. In her bio on the Committee of Seventy website, she had written: “When you stop for a second and think just how big this world is, it’s easy to think that one person can’t possibly have an impact. I’m not going to say you can change the world … but … it is quite possible to change the world for someone by doing something great with whatever it is that lives inside of you.”
She kept thinking of a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What would Gandhi do? she asked herself, jogging through the streets in the early summer morning. Would Gandhi work for Comcast?
Crossing Broad Street into North Philly, she waved to the group of men gathered in front of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, the homeless shelter on the corner.
“There she is!” she heard them shout as she approached, and they all burst out clapping as the little blonde from North Dakota jogged merrily through the jumble of empty buildings, bathed in morning light.
“Man, I don’t know what kind of trip that chick is on,” someone said.
As usual, Anne smiled and waved and continued on.
A few blocks later, she had what she would later tell Abdullah was “an epiphany.” Why am I just waving and not giving my gift to these guys? she thought. I know how amazing I feel when I start my day running. This can help them move forward.
“You can’t pick the moments that change your life,” Anne said several months later. “I knew what I was supposed to do.”
It was the moment that would inspire her to create Back on My Feet, a nonprofit running club for the homeless. It started out small, with a handful of Anne’s acquaintances, and shoes provided by Center City store Philadelphia Runner, but now, 10 months later, there are more than 235 volunteers working with four different shelters in town. Corporate sponsors like Nike are throwing in their lot, and Anne wants to take the organization national.
The Back on My Feet creation story was like catnip to the media, who came calling. The Inquirer and Daily News wrote inspirational stories. Back on My Feet was featured in Women’s Health, and Anne was named ABC’s person of the week. This spring, she’s slated to be part of Glamour‘s “Glamour Women” feature, which profiles women who have made a difference in their communities. “I hope they’re not going to make me put on a dress,” Anne says about this. Anne’s a strong-jawed, compact tomboy, and her wardrobe contains mostly GoreTex. Her girly flourishes are limited to the black liner with which she faithfully rims her eyes, and her blond hair, which is usually unstyled. She looks like a young Lori Petty, if you remember the ’80s, or a shorter Cameron Diaz, if you don’t, and if you think about it, the Back on My Feet story is like a treatment for a new Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds. A Midwestern girl with a heart of gold teaches a group of tough guys a skill that makes them feel good about themselves? Call it Freedom Runners.
But that’s Hollywood. In Philadelphia — not to mention the world of addiction and homelessness — is anything ever so neat?
WHEN ANNE went to Dick McMillen, the tall, stoic director of Sunday Breakfast, one of the oldest Christian missions in the country — now basically a rehab center for people with drug and alcohol problems — to tell him about the running club she wanted to form, he was skeptical. “You have to be careful with these things,” he said. Especially when they involve giveaways, like the shoes donated by the Philadelphia Runner store. But, he said, “I can see the potential in it.”
He gathered up the men in the long-term recovery program and passed around a sign-up sheet. “We’re gonna try this and see how it works,” he said. Nine men signed up. Abdullah, who’d just completed his first 30 days at the shelter, was one of them.
Anne met with the men at Sunday Breakfast’s chapel. She told them about running, how it helped her and how it could help them. They were dubious. What does this young white girl know about life? thought Mike Solomon, one of the nine. Anne was undaunted.
“Sometimes people judge me based on how I look,” she said to them. “I know you guys get that, too.”
But in their brand-new sneakers and gym shorts, the men from the shelter looked like everybody else, and in fact, they were like everybody else. “When you’re running, your socioeconomic status doesn’t matter,” Anne says. “When we’re out there running, we’re all just runners.”
The routine was the same every day. Meet in front of the mission at 5:45 a.m., discuss the route, hold hands in a circle and pray, run, hug. The early-morning hour was chosen because it was easier for Anne and the volunteers to fit into their schedules, and because the men had work to do at the mission. And there were other benefits. The people on their way to work, people who once might have shunned them, nodded and smiled as the men ran past them in the empty streets. “If you had seen me a few months ago,” Mike says, jogging in place in his terry-cloth headband one morning, “you would have crossed the street to avoid me.”
As the men, fueled by sobriety and endorphins, found themselves becoming different people, the city around them seemed to become different, too. “I’m seeing it in a way I never saw it before,” member Craig Hall says. “When you’re on drugs, you’re not looking at the art, at the sculptures that are all around.”
To take it all in, the group planned its routes like field trips. They ran up the Art Museum steps, around Eastern State Penitentiary. “Eastern State was a penitentiary on the Quaker model,” volunteer Stuart Napshin, a Drexel Ph.D. candidate and triathlete, says one day, jogging backward in front of a huffing Craig. “It was intended not just to punish, but to encourage prisoners to open up to God, to seek penance.”
After Stuart jogs off to educate someone else, Craig tells me he used to be a freelance drummer, and that he once had the chance to play with George Clinton. “But I blew that, man,” he says, and the self-loathing in his voice is so reflexive and raw and worse than anyone else’s insecurity that you can immediately see how Craig got here. But at Sunday Breakfast, he’s been given time to look at and analyze himself. “I have a lot of difficulty not letting people get to me, you know?” he says. “I see people doing things, these machinations, and it makes me angry. I have a lot of anger.”
Still, he seems to be getting there. “I always thought I’d be in the papers for something disgraceful,” Craig told Delaware’s News Journal a few days after the group formed. “‘Craig Hall’s body was found somewhere’ — but instead, it’s something real positive.”
Anne put her marketing skills to work in the early stages: She created a website, got sponsors, got the Inquirer, Daily News and local TV to cover the first run. After that, the operation expanded at a dizzying rate. Students and lawyers and administrative assistants contacted Anne about helping. Whole Foods became a sponsor, and Nike. A local gym offered a partnership: If the homeless can run, they can take spinning classes, too. Donations poured in from law firms and corporations, enabling her to hire a full-time employee.
And it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t just the men from the shelter who were learning new things. “The way that they talk about how they’ve made bad decisions, it’s not that different from you and me,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a lawyer at Pepper Hamilton. “Life could overwhelm any of us at any moment. And you look at these guys, and they are pulling back from the brink — it’s inspiring.”
So, too, are the unusual friendships forming.
“Let’s go see Wylie!” someone shouts during a Happy Hour evening run around Rittenhouse Square, and the group floods into Philadelphia Runner to say a quick hello to Wylie Belasik. The store’s assistant manager, one of the group’s first sponsors, is now the training coach. There’s a brief flurry of hugging, and the run back to the shelter resumes.
In the socially stratified city of Philadelphia, Wylie, a gangly 23-year-old who grew up on a horse farm in Kennett Square and graduated from the University of New Hampshire, and Abdullah, an ex-con who once beat up a guy in a park because he looked geeky, wouldn’t ordinarily be friends. They’d probably never even cross paths, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t hug. But Back on My Feet exists in an alternate Philadelphia; in the strangely depopulated city in which they meet every morning, the people who live in luxury lofts and those who live in the shelters find common ground. “ We’ve all become edified by something,” Abdullah said after completing the Dash for Democracy in November. “All of us together with people from different walks of life, we’ve become better educated about each other. We all have character flaws. We’re just alike.”
As the daily runs continued, the volunteers and the men from the shelter started opening up to one another, and more social events started cropping up on the calendar: picnics, trips to the movies, book exchanges. “There’s a union we are all creating,” says Abdullah. “Running is the vehicle, but something’s happened that is like a spiritual force. It’s changed my life, and I know it’s changing theirs.”
One morning, at the circle the group formed on the Vine Street Bridge, Abdullah, his head still bowed, began to sing. Long ago, he’d been a singer. Even had a record contract, before, he says, he blew it. Across the circle, the eyes of a few of the volunteers filled with tears.
“It’s not all sunshine and roses,” Gene said at the National Constitution Center back in November, where the Sunday Breakfast crew had just completed the Dash for Democracy. Gene (he doesn’t want his last name used), a 53-year-old who manages a building in Chinatown, encountered Anne the same way the men of Sunday Breakfast did, on her morning runs. A teenage runaway, he’d spent a portion of his life on the street. He has a house now that he built, up in the Northeast. When Anne came to him with her plan, “I thought, I can help talk to the guys,” he said. “Spiritual discussions, moral discussions, decision-making. What options there are in life.”
Gene has become the runners’ tough-love uncle. He doesn’t trust all of the men, he says. “Look, I understand the mentality. I know the tricks. They survived on the streets because they’re tough and street-smart, and they can take advantage. They’re not all going to make it. Anne is an angel, but” — his voice drops to a whisper — “she can be a little bit naïve.”
He has a point. Anne, after all, started Back on My Feet with zero experience with the homeless and no training. Andrew Marr, 27, hired in January as Back on My Feet’s V.P. and director of community affairs, used to teach golf on the Main Line. Wylie Belasik manages a sneaker store. They’re idealists, not social workers.
Contrary to what’s been reported, they’ve lost a few guys from the program. Sean Bennett, an early member, couldn’t resist the lure of the streets. Some would-be members disappeared as soon as they got their shoes. And there was the brouhaha over a City Paper cover story in which Anne was quoted saying, “These guys aren’t used to accomplishing things, they are just trying to get by.” (Today, she denies ever saying this.) When they read the story, several of the members felt insulted, and they confronted Anne.
“They had her backed up against a wall, and one of them was shouting, ‘What do you mean, we’re not used to accomplishing anything?’” Gene says. “They made her cry.”
“Some people were upset,” Anne says, carefully, “and we worked through it.”
In early November, Craig got into a fight with his girlfriend and ended up having a drink to take the edge off. Consuming alcohol is prohibited by Sunday Breakfast, so he didn’t go back to the shelter afterward. He went to the waiting room at Hahnemann, and watched TV all night. Then he returned to the shelter and confessed his mistake. They might have taken him back, but he didn’t get along with everyone there. He wanted to keep running, though.
So Anne pulled strings so he could get into one of the other running groups that Back on My Feet oversees. But at the Dash for Democracy, he made it clear that getting to 12th and Vine was becoming a terrible hardship.
“I need to get a SEPTA pass to get the train out here to meet you,” Craig said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again. “I don’t know when I’m going to get the money for that.”
Andrew looked him in the eye. “Okay, how much do you need?” he said, opening his wallet.
“Sixteen dollars,” Craig said. Andrew handed him a $20.
Handing cash to an alcoholic who recently fell off the wagon is not something an experienced nonprofit worker would necessarily do. “It’s so tempting to volunteers to just take something out of their pockets,” says Phyllis Ryan Jackson, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness. “But it’s probably only for the next coffee or the next beer.”
But Andrew and Anne want to trust the men they work with, and they want the men to trust them. They see themselves not as outreach workers or volunteers, but as equals, friends. “I have coffee with them. I talk to them about my life,” Anne says of the Back on My Feet members. “They don’t want to feel like you’re there for charity reasons. The bonds I have with these guys are really, really close.”
“That’s what the draw is, isn’t it?” says runner Darrell Hambro, a 53-year-old from Southwest Philly in mirrored wraparound sunglasses. “Drugs and alcohol, they cause an isolation … we’re just learning to reconnect. And that’s what life is, connecting with other people. We’re learning to live again.”
But the closeness has caused problems. There was, for example, the time Abdullah gave a volunteer a fervent poem he had written. “He doesn’t know … he interprets things differently,” Anne explains. “He’s been with just men for so long, and he sees these quality women around, and he has a tendency to latch on. The poem was from his heart, about how appreciative he is. It was misinterpreted.”
Anne can sound Pollyanna-ish, and her zeal for the organization, combined with the blanket media coverage of Back on My Feet, has caused some observers to be suspicious even of her motives, let alone the organization’s effectiveness.
“I think she just wants attention,” says one nonprofit worker who doesn’t want to be named. “Getting through to the homeless is not easy. It takes years to master the skills to change people’s lives. This whole thing — ‘Ah, Anne is showing the homeless they can run and now everything is going to be okay.’”
“It certainly is not a cure-all,” Sunday Breakfast director Dick McMillen says. “We’ve had runners disappear over the weekend and come back and get drug-tested and have drugs in their system.”
“What homeless people really need are homes, and jobs,” says one employee at Project H.O.M.E. “But to her credit, Anne has realized that a little.”
Recently, Back on My Feet has partnered with organizations like the Metropolitan Career Center, which helps with job training. And even Back on My Feet’s detractors admit there might be something to the program. “I’ve seen a lot of eye-rolls, like, ‘That’s so stupid,’” says the woman who works at Project H.O.M.E. “But I don’t hear anybody say, ‘That’s a bad thing to do.’”
In December, Back on My Feet helped Mike Solomon get a job doing survey research. He’s still living in the shelter, but he’s looking for an apartment, and he’s moved on to a sort of emeritus status with Back on My Feet, which has more than 40 runners from shelters now. After almost a year, most of the original members of the Sunday Breakfast team are still running together. James, a former AIDS counselor, has been sober for more than a year, and is currently in the market for a job. He hopes to come back and volunteer with Back on My Feet. So does Abdullah. “I want to work with Anne until the day I die,” he says.
“When I crossed that bridge, I didn’t know a young lady was going to have a vision — an epiphany, she calls it. I didn’t know that I was going to receive love again.” He laughs. “Now I run across that bridge, and I’m happy to turn around and come back.”
This time, the city should be glad to have him.