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How running is helping the D.C. homeless one mile at a time

It's 5:30 in the morning, the D.C. streets are quiet, the lights are still off in most homes and at the corner of 10th and Spring Road in Northwest, D.C. there is a group of about 15 volunteers and six men from the local homeless shelter, La Casa stretching and getting ready for a morning run.

While this group is gathering at 10th and Spring, there are also five other groups gathering in the D.C. and Northern Virginia area, and 50 more spending the early morning hours running together nationwide!

The group is called Back on My Feet. You may have heard of the group or seen them running around the city, but for those who are unfamiliar, Back on My Feet is a national nonprofit organization that combats homelessness through the power of running, community support, and essential employment and housing resources. "We operate in 12 major cities coast-to-coast and use running and community to motivate and support individuals every step of the way from homelessness to independence," explained Bill Kuennen, Program Director of the Washington, D.C. Chapter.

Back on My Feet works in partnership with more than 60 homeless and residential facilities around the country. To become a member you must be at least 18-years-old, and 30-days clean and sober. Members typically reside in the facilities that Back on My Feet partners with and are recruited by current members and are urged to sign up within the facility.

In the D.C. area alone, according to the 2016 Point in Time count, there are 8,350 homeless —3,683 individuals and 4,667 people in families.

"We seek to revolutionize the way our society approaches homelessness," said Kuennen. "Our unique running-based model demonstrates that if you first restore confidence, strength, and self-esteem, individuals are better equipped to tackle the road ahead and move toward jobs, homes, and new lives. Our success is measured not only by the health impact of miles run, but also by how many individuals obtain an education, employment, and housing."

While running is a huge component of Back on My Feet, the organization is much more than just a running program. After 30 days in the program with a 90 percent attendance rate, members move into the second phase of the program called Next Steps, which provides job training, education opportunities and access to employment and housing opportunities. Back on My Feet provides financial literacy classes, employment readiness classes and they partner with Capital Bikeshare to give the members a way to get around the city. The program also has employment partnerships with Marriott, Hilton, CVS, Wash Cycle Laundry, and Honeygrow restaurants.

"We have education partnerships with GED programs, So Others Might Eat medical assistance and building maintenance training, and D.C. Central Kitchen’s culinary skills classes," said Kuennen. "Our partnership with Capital Area Asset Builders, with funding from Suntrust, also provides our members individual development accounts and a monetary match to aid our members move toward success."

The volunteers at Back on My Feet run every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:45 a.m. to support the members in their journeys. "Our volunteer experience is amazing, but not easy, yet people of all walks of life happily wake up at an early hour, at times in rain, cold, and snow, to run and support our members. It says something about the character of an individual to challenge themselves to this level of commitment and it’s often because of the members," added Kuennen.

"While I love our volunteers, the members inspire me the most. What our members are experiencing is difficult in and of itself, but yet our members commit to attending 90 percent of our morning runs because they want to improve their lives," explained Kuennen. "The member stories are often incredible, many involving situations I could just have easily experienced if one or two things were different. Through it all, they come out with smiles, hugs, and the belief they WILL be successful and will put in the miles necessary to reach whatever finish line they aim to cross."

Kuennen hopes that the members of Back on My Feet feel proud of their accomplishments. "I hope our members are proud of their hard work to achieve their running and personal goals. I hope they are proud to be a part of the running community and proud to say they are treated as equals. Proud to complete their first mile, first 5k, and first half marathon. Proud to have gotten the job interview and then the job. Proud to move into their own independent housing unit. Proud to be known by their name and not by their 'homeless' or 'in treatment' status. Proud to be role models to future members as Alumnus of our program. Finally, proud to represent Back on My Feet to show themselves, their peers, and family they are working to be the best they can be."

Since 2007 the group has served more than 6,000 individuals nationally and engaged over 100,000 volunteers and supporters.

If you are interested in learning more about Back on My Feet, you can visit the website here.

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