By Kylie Blanchard
It is easy to think of change in monumental terms and to find inspiration in the leaps and bounds others make in their lives. But sometimes the most defining moments are those when a person simply puts one foot in front of the other and takes the first steps towards positive change.
Anne Mahlum, a Bismarck-native, is making big changes in some of the country’s largest cities with a step-by-step approach to combating homelessness. She is founder and president of Back on My Feet, a non-profit organization that promotes self-sufficiency of homeless populations by engaging individuals in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem.
Founded in 2007 in Philadelphia, the organization now has chapters in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Boston; along with plans to expand to Chicago in the fall. In June, Mahlum also announced the first three of five expansion cities for 2011: Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
For many years, running has been a key component in Mahlum’s life. She has completed nine marathons and has a goal to run a marathon on every continent. “Running has always had an impact on me and it is something I do everyday. It continues to be the core of what I do personally and professionally,” she says.
Running was an activity she first turned to when dealing with a struggling time during high school. “Sometimes you have to be on the bad roads to get to the good roads,” Mahlum says, sharing one of the many lessons she’s learned from the sport.
While living in Philadelphia, following the completion of her master’s degree, she began to realize running could teach many others the same lessons. On her daily run in the city, Mahlum passed a homeless shelter. Beginning with a smile and wave from a distance, she soon developed a rapport with the men standing outside the shelter.
One morning an idea stopped her in her tracks. With a call to the shelter and support from the community and the media, the city’s first homeless running club began at 6 a.m. on July 3, 2007.
Mahlum gives credit to her North Dakota roots in making the initial contact with the shelter residents and says people are often surprised to hear she reached out to the men outside the facility. “I’m from North Dakota. I wave at a lot of people and talk to people I don’t know,” she explains. “Those are Midwestern values you don’t see in a lot of big cities.”
Back on My Feet now boast a total membership of 850 participants. Of that total, 200 are residential members who got involved with the organization while living at a partnering transitional facility and 650 are non-residential volunteer members. The organization now also has a twenty member staff and a $3.4 million operational budget.
Mahlum says a team approach is key to the residential members’ success in the organization’s programs. Along with running, programs also include job training and educational and housing assistance. “The running component of the program is built around commitment and teamwork, and gets people ready for those next steps,” she says. “It is coupled with a positive support system and there is this pride aspect that sets in. You become a part of this family.”
Back on My Feet teams run together three days a week starting between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. and all members are required to attend each day in order to build a community of love, hope, trust, friendship, encouragement and support within their team. “Running three times a week at 5:45 a.m. isn’t always easy,” notes Mahlum. “But you keep pushing and that is how life works.”
After two months of participation in the program, residential members with at least 90 percent attendance move into the Next Steps phase. Members work with the organization to determine the next steps in their lives and are offered assistance with job training programs, educational scholarships and housing.
Since 2009, 250 Back on My Feet members have enrolled in job training, received employment, or moved out of the shelter. In addition, more than 55 members have completed a half or full marathon.
Back on My Feet is supported by donations, events, and corporate and foundation support. In addition, individuals can support the organization in a number of ways. Back on My Feet merchandise is available for purchase online, with all proceeds going to the organization. “It’s a brand we are building to promote the organizations,” notes Mahlum.
Runners from across the country can also enter any race on behalf of Back on My Feet and raise funds for the organization; and individuals can also make monetary donations directly to the organization. Mahlum has returned to Bismarck to speak at area schools and events, and appreciates the support the community has shown. “North Dakota has been great. It’s been nice to have the support of my hometown.”
In 2008, Mahlum was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of the Year. She was also chosen as one of Philadelphia’s 101 Young Connectors by Leadership Philadelphia and was Penjerdel’s Citizen of the Year in 2009. Mahlum regularly speaks on innovative ways of combating homelessness and she recently joined the Board of Directors of Goodwill, Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Mahlum, who in March moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to lead that chapter’s expansion, says she is inspired daily by the members of Back on My Feet. “I am inspired when I see people trying really hard to do right by their lives,” she says, adding running is a way to show people they can accomplish anything. “I get inspired every time I see someone finish a race or run further than they have before. That is a really defining moment for a lot of people.”
For additional information on Back on My Feet, its programs or how to support the organization visit www.backonmyfeet.org.