Program helps homeless get up and running

It looked like the odds were stacked against Haven Black.

He was homeless and a recovering alcoholic.

But a program that pairs volunteer runners with homeless men helped put him on the road to better health and a new life.

“My son told me ‘Daddy, you never run,’ ” said Black, who once tipped the scales at 300 pounds. “I wanted him to see that Daddy can run and Daddy can achieve anything he wants to achieve in life. I’m trying to be a good role model.”

Black, a former patient care technician for a nursing home, is among the 150 or so men who have participated in Back on My Feet Atlanta, which helps builds self-esteem among the homeless. The men learn that in life, like in running, there are no shortcuts.

You work hard. You remain consistent. And if you hit a speed bump along the way, you keep going.

“It has a tremendous impact on an individual’s self-esteem and creates consistency,” said Tiffany Brennaman, the program director of Back on My Feet Atlanta.

Black, the divorced father of two, said he became homeless in 2008 after a dispute with his wife. He was forced to leave with only the clothes on his back. He moved to a homeless shelter, then eventually to Trinity House-Big Bethel, which offers transitional housing. He now lives with his mother.

His goal is to eventually work in search and rescue for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He has not officially applied for a job with FEMA, but over the past few months he has been building his resume. Black, with financial help from his family, has taken diving lessons at Diving World USA, earned a sailing certificate and is learning how to drive a truck.

“It was one of the most motivating experiences of my life,” said Black, who said the camaraderie with other men and volunteers such as Courtney Clark, a metro Atlanta-based business consultant, kept him going.

When he first started, he was so out of shape that it was hard for him to run. So he walked, jogged and then ran.

Clark figured, if the guys were getting up at 5:30 a.m. and running several miles a day, she could as well. “I didn’t realize it would become such big part of my life,” she said. They talked about his favorite things to cook, Trinity House and his role there.

She said he frequently mentioned his desire to work at FEMA and lose weight.

About 50 others from Trinity House have participated in the program.

“It works extremely well for the men here,” said Derek Duncan, the program director for Trinity Community Ministries, which operates the transitional housing program. “The exercise piece rejuvenates them. They get up and exercise in the morning, and it helps to be around a group of volunteers who come with love and understanding. “

The national organization, founded in 2007 in Philadelphia by Anne Mahlum, has chapters in nine other cities. The Atlanta chapter was formed in 2011 and works with residents in transitional housing facilities such as Trinity House-Big Bethel, the Salvation Army and the Gateway Center.

The organization raises money to buy running gear for the men, and some items are donated.

Duncan added that the program, which includes support services such as financial literacy education and job training from corporate partners, helps the men overcome certain barriers to permanent housing and independence.

Black, who took a leadership role among the other men in the program, is a prime example, Duncan said. “He was serious this time about changing his life. He had that drive that said, ‘Hey, I will succeed.’ ”

Clark and Black have kept in touch and occasionally run together.

“Back on My Feet has shown me that this is really an individual’s choice to make,” Clark said. “Haven was strong on his stance. He knew what he wanted to do.”

Does she think it will one day be FEMA-bound?

“Yes, 100 percent.”

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