Back on My Feet inspires with running, confidence to change lives

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“I think we all fall in life,” says one runner. What matters is getting up.

It’s 5:45 a.m. on a brisk Wednesday as about two dozen men and women gather in the parking lot of The Varsity restaurant in Midtown.

After warm-up exercises, they are off for either a 3-mile or 2-mile run or walk on Peachtree Street.

This, though, is not your typical running club.

These runners are part of Back on My Feet Atlanta, a nonprofit that changes lives - step by step - of people who are homeless and those struggling with addiction.

When Montavious Montfort first ran with the group two years ago, he hit the streets in a pair of black rubber slides he owned, “like my grandmother would wear.”

A former safety and running back on his high school football team in Thomaston, Ga., Montfort lived in Covenant Community, a residential program for men who are homeless or have substance abuse issues. The next day, feeling more confident, he slid on a pair of sneakers his mother had given him and joined the group on his first 5-K race.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The nonprofit gives participants new running shoes after their third consecutive run.

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Today, Montfort, 29, has logged more than 1,320 miles with Back On My Feet. He now lives in transitional housing, works in a hotel, is earning a degree in entertainment business and has started his own company, CalmandCollectedRecords.

“I had been living that street life,” said Montfort, who wants to set a better example for his 9-year-old son. “Drugs, gangs. I wanted to change.”

Back on My Feet was a critical part of that journey.

He ran so fast that first time that he pulled ahead of the group and got lost. He thought about quitting, but one of the volunteers, “Miss Leslie,” caught up to him. “You’re almost there,” he recalled her saying. “I’m with you. Let’s go.”

That interaction and others with volunteers were pivotal.

”It helped me develop meaningful relationships and connections” said Montfort, who still comes back to run with the group. “I learned to trust people again. There are people out there who love me and just want to see you win.”

Back on My Feet Atlanta recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

Running is the start, but program helps build better lives through education and work

Back on My Feet Atlanta, which has four running teams, recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

The national program, which began in 2007 in Philadelphia, has undergone a rapid expansion, with chapters now in 17 cities. It partners with shelters and centers for addiction and recovery for people who are homeless.

Using a fitness-based, holistic approach, it helps people become self-sufficient, build confidence and self-esteem, develop workforce skills and further their education.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Everyone who is a member of the program is moving from a state of homelessness to independence,” said Heather Turton, program manager for the Atlanta chapter.

Another component is accountability.

Participants make a commitment to run three times a week. They engage with alumni and volunteers, who also help with other objectives, like workforce development and mentoring.

ExploreNew Atlantan inspired to help people who are homeless

Some of the participants who have never run before have gone on to run in 5Ks, 10ks and marathons.

The program is not meant to be another barrier for participants. There’s no fitness test or Ironman competition, said Turton.

“The goal is really to create a community and opportunity for members to have another positive influence in their lives.”

At any given time, as many as 75 volunteers work with the Atlanta program, which serves 250 people a year.

Executive Director Anita DeMyers runs Trinity Community Ministries, which provides transitional housing for men. After living at Trinity for 30 days, residents can join Back on My Feet.

DeMyers says the program builds confidence.

“Some of these guys have never really committed to anything ever in life and followed through with it. Once they see they can commit to getting up three days a week and running or walking, they realize they can commit to other things.”

Morris " Mo” Luangsisongkham, 42, a manufacturing engineer for the Atlanta office of global company, has volunteered since late 2020. He has raised more than $3,000 for the nonprofit.

Previously, Luangsisongkham had been going through challenges in his own life, including divorce and drinking.

He said he needed an outlet to “clear my mind and have something to focus on instead of what was going on.”

He was always into fitness and joined different running communities, but something was still missing. At the same time he was growing deeper in his faith, and he wanted to find ways to help others. His search led to Back on My Feet Atlanta, whose mission also aligned with his fitness passion.

“I lost my home, my job. Almost everything because of the alcohol.”

Another alumnus is Elizabeth “Liz” Bizuneh, an Ethiopian immigrant who left her home in Addis Ababa in 1990 and journeyed thousands of miles to the United States for a better life.

Bizuneh, 54, joined Back on My Feet while living at the Salvation Army Metro Atlanta Red Shield Services shelter. Bizuneh is the mother of an adult daughter and grandmother of an 8-year-old.

”Life was good but somehow I got divorced and I started drinking and it goes too far — the drink,” said Bizuneh. “I lost my home, my job. Almost everything because of the alcohol.”

Now running has become a hobby and her life is on the right track.

She’s run the AJC Peachtree Road Race. She is learning to read English. She’s working a new job in a hospital linen department and her depression has lessened. BOMF bought a laptop, helped her get in school and helped her get the job, said Bizuneh, who stays in sober living housing now.

She enjoys talking with others who have experienced the same struggles. They encourage each other. “Life has changed,” she said. The way I think has changed. Talking to different people in Back on My Feet helped in my recovery.”

Not everyone is a success story.

Luangsisongkham said some guys will do a few runs or walks for a while then they stop coming. He suspects they may have lapsed in their recovery. One hit close to home.

He had developed a connection with one of the men and the two bonded over conversations about faith. The man repeatedly said how grateful he was to be alive.

Then one day the man left where he was living to go to the post office. He never came back.

“Sometimes it’s tough because you form a connection with someone,” Luangsisongkham said. “The only thing you can do is just pray for them.”

On a recent morning, volunteers, alumni and members gathered at Covenant Community, honoring participants who had completed milestones with medals, running watches, T-shirts and caps.

Then they ate as newcomer Kevin Payne, 49, thanked the volunteers and alumni who had helped him “reclaim an emotional balance” and gain a sense of belonging.

“I think we all fall in life,” he said.

What matters most, though, he and others say, is that you get up.