Running project helps homeless

Daylight has yet to break through the dark morning sky and already some 20 people are gathered outside Trinity House, a transitional housing facility in downtown Atlanta.

After a round of hugs, the group forms a circle and introduces one another before doing a few warm-up exercise. Then they hit the pavement running.

The group is part of a nonprofit called Back on My Feet Atlanta, which was launched about a month ago to promote self-sufficiency among the homeless through running. The idea is building self-esteem and self-sufficiency as they become physically fit.

The organization, founded in 2007 in Philadelphia by Anne Mahlum, has chapters in several cities including Baltimore, Washington, Boston and Indianapolis.

Groups totalling 27 residential participants and more than 80 volunteers have been formed locally at Trinity House, the Salvation Army shelter and the Gateway Center, which runs transitional housing programs and homeless shelters.

“It’s created a huge boost in self-esteem, their actual physical health and it’s created a tight bond between the men,” said John Hannula, executive director of Trinity House, where participants gather for 5:30 a.m. runs on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Those are the three big things for me. Trust is hard to build among the homeless and substance-abuse community but these folks actually do care.”

Nine of Trinity House’s 36 male residents participate in the program and that number is expected to expand to a dozen this month. Thus far, no one has dropped out, Hannula said. When he first approach the men about the program, there was some apprehension. They wanted to know if there was a catch.

“I told them there is no catch,” Hannula said. “But there’s a huge accountability part, and there’s a huge team-building part.”

That pitch worked for Jacob Lawler, a native Floridian who has lived at Trinity House for about four months. The other men look to Lawler, 26, as a leader for the running program because he has a background in track. He runs around the group to make sure other runners are not falling too far behind while offering words of encouragement along the way.

The 6-foot-2 Lawler said he was a regional champion in high school and was set to receive a track scholarship to college when he “blew it” by partying and drugging hard. Law-ler said he’s been surprised to discover he still has that competitive drive.

“It’s brought back that spark, that fire and desire not to give up,” he said.

He has developed a closer friendship with a couple of runners, including Dustin Davis, 41, a native of Chicago, and Aaron Weatherly, 35, of Oakland, Calif.

Davis, who has lived at Trinity House for about two months, was a construction and electrical worker before he hit bottom due to drugs and alcohol. After losing his job, his home and forced to live on the streets, Davis said he decided to join the program to gain discipline and because he needed “someone to be tough on me.”

An added benefit is staying healthy. “It’s perfect to earn something to stay in shape,” he said.

After 30 days in the program, members who maintain 90 percent attendance move to the Next Steps phase, which involves educational and job training opportunities. Each participant can earn up to $1,250 in financial aid in a movement toward self-sufficiency.

Volunteer Julie Stoverink references her own evolution through running, which produced more confidence while she became fit.

“It literally changed my life completely,” she said. “And I hope it does the same thing for the guys.”

Stoverink, 33, said she hated running when she first started and didn’t think she would excel. But she was determined to continue.

“I ended up falling in love with it,” said Stoverink, who works as a grants and contracts officer at Georgia State University. “I want these guys to know that they can accomplish anything. If they consistently stick with something, it can take their lives to a whole new level.”

There are about eight Back on My Feet participants at the Gateway Center, which offers transitional housing for men along with emergency shelter and some short-term transitional housing for women and children.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Molly Williams, the community relations director, who said no one at Gateway has left the program either. “The residents love it. They’re having a great time, and they’ve formed a great bond with the team. Most people didn’t know each other before this started. They’re more talkative and hanging out with the other guys.”