“It’s not about me.” Anne Mahlum began her talk with this simple statement, revealing it to be true indeed.
On Wednesday, April 3, the founder and CEO of Back on My Feet, Mahlum, spoke at the University for the Center for Peace and Justice Education’s Oscar Romero Solidarity Lecture.
Mahlum founded Back on My Feet, shortened to BOMF, while she was living and working in Philadelphia. She, like many of the college students in the audience, was at a point of confusion in her life, in her 20s. She had a great job but was unsure of where she was headed. One thing that she had always turned to for a sense of stability was running.
She would run past a homeless shelter. There was a group of men that she would run past every day she ran, and eventually it was frequent enough that they would wave. Then they would exchange hellos. Eventually they began to jokingly ask, “Are you always running?” and she would jokingly respond, “Are you always standing there?” She began to ask herself why she was the one running and they were the ones stuck standing there. She recalled how running helped her to discover all the things she loves about herself and how it doesn’t discriminate. So she took action.
Mahlum went to the director of the shelter and asked if she could start a running club — a group that runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The director agreed, but told her not to get her hopes up.
However, a week later she received an email from the director listing the names of nine interested people next to their shoe sizes and the question: what’s next? She used donations to buy the group new shoes, socks, shorts and t-shirts and got ready to start.
When Mahlum met with the group before their first running session, she required each member to commit and sign a piece of paper saying that they would show up three days a week, on time, ready to run and support their teammates. Every single person, including Mahlum, signed the sheets. She says setting the expectations high is a big factor of BOMF.
“The looks on their faces…” Mahlum says. “It was almost as if they were waiting for someone to see something they couldn’t see in themselves, someone expecting pure excellence from them.”
Mahlum spread the word about the group, and reporters all had the same reaction: “Homeless people don’t run.” But on July 3, 2007, every station had a reporter at the group’s meeting spot at 6 a.m. to see what would happen. The entire group from the shelter was there early and ready.
The reporters were fascinated as to why there were people experiencing homelessness were out so early to go running.
“When people think of runners, the type-A, goal-oriented, health-conscious person comes to mind,” Mahlum says.
Those who are homeless are typically the last people thought of as runners because people stereotype them as lazy and unambitious. However, when the reporters asked the runners why they were out there that morning they got answers like, “I wanted to try something new” or “It sounded fun”—answers that could come from anyone, housed or house-less. “There was a kind of humility from the reporters when they received those answers from an unlikely group of runners,” Mahlum says.
When the group grew from nine people to 20 people, Mahlum realized that this could be something big. Her first observation was that people were showing up because they wanted to be there, not because they were being forced to be there. The second was that when Mahlum tracked the runners’ miles on a poster board, they watched over her shoulder as she gave them credit for the work they did.
“We’re all searching for the same thing,” Mahlum says. “We want to be cheered for, valued, loved. If you don’t feel appreciated in your job or relationship or whatever, you leave. It’s what being a human being is all about. How can they get out of homelessness without self-confidence? If we can get them to look at themselves as confident goal-setters, can it apply to other areas of life?”
With that ambition to change people’s direction in life, BOMF has since helped over 800 individuals to become fully self-sustaining and has chapters in 10 cities.
The audience responded well to Mahlum. Co-founder and co-president of the Villanova chapter of BOMF, senior Frank Dougherty, admired her mission.
“Despite ridicule on how her idea might not work, Anne selflessly pursued helping a marginalized group of people without recognizing personal gain,” Dougherty says.
One interactive portion of Mahlum’s talk was her invitation to the audience to stand up and say one thing they like about themselves. “It was a useful activity highlighting how difficult it is for people in our culture to cultivate self-worth, housed or not,” says faculty advisor of BOMF Jennifer Kissko. “For people experiencing homelessness, finding and embracing self-worth is an extremely difficulty task, yet one essential to empowerment.”
Using this knowledge of the importance of empowerment, Mahlum has changed lives of both the housed and house-less. She says they build real relationships based on similarities and support. She encourages those who have yet to partake to participate in BOMF, or really in anything they’ve been thinking about.
“People are always saying ‘I should do yoga,’ ‘ I should volunteer more,’ etc., and pretty soon people end up ‘should-ing’ all over themselves,” Mahlum says. “Start doing one of the things you ‘should’ be doing. Just do it.”
Mahlum’s dedication to BOMF left an impact on the audience with a reminder that running discriminates against no one and that it has the potential to be the steady drumbeat people need in their lives.
“I hope listeners will be inspired to participate in and support such an original and successful organization like Back on My Feet,” Kissko says. “But at the very least, I believe Anne left us with the power of ‘possibility’—that each of us may follow our passion and take risks in life, believing in ourselves in a way that allows us to be mindful and compassionate toward those around us.”