With the morning sun on the horizon and the smell of fresh-baked donuts permeating the air, the Back on My Feet (BOMF) running team gathers in the gravel parking lot outside the Long Beach Rescue Mission.
Before forming a circle for their pre-run stretches, there are hugs and greetings with energy that is almost unfathomable at 5AM. Then come the jumping jacks and lunges and pushups and... It’s far too early for anyone to pull a muscle. The group then forms a huddle, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, forming a contiguous circle, and they talk about values, love, and wishes for jobs and cars. They recite a serenity prayer and break for their run.
With everyone dressed in running attire, it’s almost impossible to tell who is homeless and who is not. But this is a team and for the next hour, finances and status go out the window. They’re here to run.
“It takes me out of my position and makes me a human being just like them,” said Ryo Masukawa, a BOMF volunteer and run-team coordinator. “For me, it’s important because it’s given me the ability to get back to being human. You know, just being able to have a relationship with somebody not for where they live, their zip code, the car that they drive and the clothes that they’re wearing.”
Masukawa, a volunteer since March, saw the BOMF booth at the Long Beach Marathon Convention. It is a national, for-purpose 501(c)3 organization based in Philadelphia that partners with homeless shelters and uses running as a tool to teach self-sufficiency, confidence, and dedication to get people back on their feet. The company was founded in 2007 by Anne Mahlum under the premise of changing people’s lives one mile at a time.
Since its humble beginnings, the organization has expanded to 10 other cities, making the greater Los Angeles area home to its newest branch last October. In addition to working with Homeboy Industries, Union Rescue Mission, and The Clare Foundation in LA, it partners with the Long Beach Rescue Mission and U.S. Vets in Long Beach and currently serves about 25 people in the city.
Ashley Roberts, director of communications and corporate relations for the Los Angeles area, explained that BOMF is a value-added, incentive-based program. In order for future residents—people experiencing homelessness—to advance to the “Next Step” portion of the program, which offers assessment of current life situations and development of a roadmap toward an independent lifestyle, they must meet certain requirements. The organization also helps residents overcome obstacles to gaining employment by providing assistance in the form of transportation to job interviews, paying DMV fines, or a helping with security deposits for an apartment.
Residents must maintain a 90% attendance rate on runs; they occur every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:30AM where they meet with non-residents—volunteers and running coaches—who help train and motivate runners in the program. Roberts said running is only a part but not the end-game of the program.
“They’re not running for time, they’re running for achievement,” Roberts said. “You’re making progress and moving forward in your life and seeing different achievements whether it be in running or getting a new position at your facility.”
Christopher is one of those runners. He came to the rescue mission in 2012, looking for a place to live after gall bladder surgery and the mission offered him a bed. The chaplains at the mission connected him with Up and Running, a separate running program, which helped him train for the Long Beach Half-Marathon, but this year he’ll be running the full 26.2 miles Sunday October 12. Even though he trains on his own for the marathon, he enjoys the friendly banter exchanged with Ryo on their morning runs.
“It makes you feel more human,” Christopher said about his relationships with the volunteers in the organization. “That’s the whole idea. Knowing that we’re connected as human beings and building up that closeness, knowing friendships… It’s a lot of heart, no matter what they do, they pour out their heart.”
Three days a week, bright and early, everyone pours their heart and soul out onto the pavement of downtown. Running shoes, donated by the organization, beat the ground as runners follow their various routes depending on ability level. Team members greet dog walkers with friendly hellos in between the rhythmic pounding of their soles on the sidewalk that echo across the sleepy waterfront.
The fact that people care enough to drag themselves out of bed, with no cash incentive, just to help motivate strangers to push harder, run longer, and succeed is something that Christopher feels indebted to.
“Knowing that there are people that they’ve never met and they can come together and be more caring for each other than they’ve ever been,” Chistopher said. “That means a lot to them and that means a lot to me.”
According to the federal Annual Homeless Assessment Report released last year, California has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless in the country with Long Beach having a 66% unsheltered rate. The efforts of BOMF have worked to combat those statistics. According to their website, to date, the organization has served 90 residents, with 18 members obtaining employment and 12 obtaining housing—not to mention members have logged over 7,000 miles running.
Mary, 58, lost her job in 2011 and was on unemployment for a year while she lived her grandson shortly before ending up at the mission. She’s an example of an Alumni Resident, one that’s ascended from runner to Next Step to job placement. She’s currently employed at a logo company in Torrance but still makes it out for the early morning runs in downtown. She said the program helps make people realize their potential and lifts them from the depths of hopelessness.
“It’s kind of how people come into the mission,” Mary said. “Down, feeling out of sorts, helpless. The whole homelessness situation is kinda traumatic. Back On My Feet helps people build up. They’re helping us build up to the people we know we can be.”
To any runner, the idea of building confidence through running resonates deeply. What is a very personal sport that tests the will-power and desire of any human that laces up a pair of cross-trainers, running can be both humbling and inspiring. When the runners’ wall hits during his first marathon, which will be Long Beach this fall, Masukawa knows where he’ll look for strength.
“I think that inspiration at mile 19 is going to come from them,” Masukawa said of Christopher and the other resident that will running the marathon with him this year. “I want to run it with these guys.”
The organization collaborates with over 100 corporate sponsors including Marriott, which has hired alumni of the program, for job placement and fundraising. Mizuno released a free,downloadable application May 19th called the Mizuno Baton that uses GPS to track users’ miles. For every mile run during a week, which starts after the first run, Mizuno donates $1 to Back On My Feet. The app has raised over $25,000 in its initial month and runs through August 18th. Mizuno capped its donations at $100,000.
The group also offers the ability for people to get involved via “fundracing”, where in the case of the LB Marathon, runners who raise a minimum of $400 are rewarded with having their race entree fee paid for as well as a variety of running gear provided by Champion. The remaining money goes toward BOMF, which estimates that it costs about $1,800 to support one resident through its program.
Like Mary, Christopher plans to continue running with the program even after he becomes an alumni. To him, it's important that people in the program see that the goals the volunteers set for them are realistic and attainable.
“It means a world of difference to a person that’s just coming back and putting their self together... That another person that’s been through what they’ve been through, that’s actually accomplished a goal,” Christopher said. “They can trust in themselves and know they can go farther than they’ve ever been before.”
Come marathon day, Christopher will literally go further than he’s ever gone before. With the support and guidance from the volunteers at BOMF and the mission, he’ll continue to strap on his knee brace and pound out miles, building up endurance and confidence for both the race and life, ending each run with a familiar ritual.
With their cool downs complete and the sun bathing Long Beach in yellows and oranges, the bustle of the rising city is palpable. Cars zoom by and construction crews report for work as the group convenes for their second prayer of the new day. Hands in the center of a human ciricle, and with a vigor that could awaken the city, they say:
“Who are we?”
“Back on my feet!”
“How long do we want to run?”