I grew up in Bismark, North Dakota. I had a pretty perfect life and school and sports were quite easy for me. I had a lot of friends; we had a house with a yard and a cabin; we all had bikes, and I just remember life being really fun. I had a great relationship especially with my father, who had a long history of playing sports in college and then in his older years, playing soft ball. He would drive hours to watch me play any kind of sport, and so at that time, I thought my parents were quite happy. Sure, they fought at times, but they were together.
As a twelve-year old, I thought my life vision was set: I'd go to graduate school, get married, have two kids and live happily-ever-after. On the summer of my sixteenth year however, things changed. One day, my dad came home from work a little early and he asked us if could leave for a little bit so he could talk to our mom. I thought that was weird he d never made that request before. When we came back, I found my dad sitting on the couch looking embarrassed and unhappy with himself. This was not the dad that I knew. He d been having trouble with gambling for the past two years of his life. But I was still too young to grasp what that really meant. My mind raced: Okay, so what can I do to help? What does it even mean?
My mom kicked my father out that day. It was surreal and suddenly my all-too-perfect life came crumbling down. Most all of our money was gone and my dad owed people thousands of dollars that we didn't have. At that time, I couldn't understand what the big deal was. At one moment, I imagined everything was fantastic between my parents, and the next moment, I saw my mom asking him to leave. The incident made me so irate that I went from being a really good kid to being really pissed off. My relationship with my mom suffered. I thought, I ll ask dad to quit and he ll stop because he loves me so much. Things will be all good and he ll be home with us again. But I soon realized that things were not going to be that simple, and it would take much more than this.
Holding Myself Together
The only thing that gave me comfort and made me feel better during this crisis was running. I knew there was no one I could really talk this through with, so essentially it was just me and running. For me, the sport provided a lot of solitude, answers to questions, peace and calm. I learned that you have to take one step at a time, because with running, you can't do ten miles until you ve run nine. Running gave me the hope that somehow things were going to be okay. So I started doing it consistently from the time I was sixteen until presently.
I continued running in college and grad school mainly because I didn't know what else I could do. My relationship with my parents was still the same. At times, I'd speak with my dad and he d say everything s alright but I knew it wasn't because it felt like he was hiding something. The gambling was still there and it was difficult to maintain a relationship with him because he actively tried to hide things from me. So in my 20 s I began to look for bigger answers to life.
In 2005, I was in DC for grad school and I started looking for a job but instead ended up finding one in Philly. it's interesting because Philly was not on my top-ten list and I didn't really want to go, but it was a great opportunity so I took it despite feeling so-so about it.
Philly was the loneliest time of my life. I just threw myself into work, because what else was there to do? At the end of the day, I didn't seek a lot of value out of life and at the same time I was trying to figure out my purpose. Eventually, I quit the job and was approached by Comcast to work in their government affairs department. I was interested and ready to take it up as it would give me a lot of exposure, opportunity to travel and challenge myself in new directions, and while I waited for their decision, I lived in this up-and-coming area of DC.
This was spring of 2007, and I was 26 then. I had developed a habit of going on morning runs since I was 16. Every day at 5 am in Philly, I ran past a homeless shelter half a mile away from where I lived. And every day I'd see this group of guys standing at a corner while I just kept running.This continued every day and I started waving at them. Slowly, the guys started getting comfortable with me and waved and grinned back.
As the running continued, I realized how I was cheating these new friends by not asking them to join me. Here I was, progressing physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally every single day and I felt it was a gift. And each time I ran I felt blessed to be making progress. So I wanted to share this empowering gift with those guys as well. The next day, I put up the idea in front of the Executive Director of the homeless shelter to get these guys running with me.
At first, he was resistant. No one s going to be interested, really, he said. But I kept being persistent and finally one day, he agreed to meet me for lunch. He said they d get a poll at the shelter and let me know if anyone s interested. There were nine people living at the shelter at the time, and surprisingly all of them said yes! In June of 2007, I went in the shelter to speak to these guys about what we were about to do. So I go in there feeling energized, like I'mgoing to change their lives, but they looked at me as if I was some chick trying to make sense of their world. I kept hitting a wall before I realized that I hadn't actually made a connection with these guys. So I shared with them my experience with my dad and running and everything and somehow, they started to let me in. We signed a declaration that we d respect each other and would start to run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 am. That s how the seed for Back on my Feet was sown.
The First Run
Back on My Feet started as a running club with me and the nine guys at the shelter running every week. We had our first one-mile run on July 3rd 2007. There was some media there through my contacts at my old job, I had managed to spread the word about the running club. To me, it felt like something special almost like falling in love.
A few days later, I finally got the job at Comcast, and I asked them for 5 weeks so that I could be sure Back on my Feet would run without me. During the first two weeks of the program however, I started to see bigger things and feel as if this was what I was meant to do. The search for purpose in my life? I could sense it now. Everyone was so involved in the runs. They were proud of what they were doing. Their attitudes had changed. They felt they had a support system. Without a support system, you can't expect people at shelters to go get a job or find something to sustain themselves. We need to first inculcate that emotional stability in them, which I started to see that they found in Back on my Feet.
Weeks passed by and the date of my joining the new job at Comcast was pretty close when I realized I just couldn't do it. I was meant to be doing this it wasn't something I had to sell to the runners or to myself. This had meaning to me and it seemed like, to other people too.
I rejected my job offer and decided to continue with the club. That s how Back on my Feet was born.
Today, we are 5 years old, have over twenty full-time employees and we have a real program that is able to work with people. We spent a lot of 2008 learning lessons; 2009 was all about implementation and since then we ve been growing and sustaining our funding and expanding our programs.
It was challenging to start raising money at the beginning when we founded BoMF. Corporations were supportive of the idea because I was able to get meetings, but everybody had the same answer: We were still too young of an organization. Now that I think about it I thank God that happened because they were brilliant lessons in hindsight. Our funding stream is now extremely well diverse. We started to create events and campaigns that would allow us to raise money from early on. From the start, we were not afraid to put ourselves out th
ere and just do things rather than wait for funds to flow in via traditional models of fund-raising and government grants. We just did what we had to do. And of course it was hard at times. I sustained myself with the marketing company job I still had and worked for four clients when BoMF was steadily growing. We kept building and growing.
In our first year, we decided to put together a 24-hour event in the summer of 2008. We figured we needed to have a signature running event that wasn’t just another 5 k but something bigger than that. Something that would allow people to really get excited about the organization and be involved in a unique race. I organized the 24-hour race that took place in Philly around the running loop in the middle of the city. We built an ultra marathon event as well as a relay, and a midnight run in a pajama loop – fun different things in the running community. It was a very successful year one; we raised over 100,000 dollars which was, for a first year event, really fantastic. Along with this, a lot of factors like coverage by ABC and CNN helped gear up Back on my Feet.
Basically, to cover up what was going on in my family life, I went a million miles an hour with everything else I was doing. I finished school in three years not for any other reason than to stick out of the crowd and one thing I've learned from all this, about life and running an organization, is that sometimes you just have to do the trial and error and the error part is just as important as the trial. People say “Oh I would do this if I had the time” or “I would do this if I had funding” But when something becomes important to you, you just start doing it. You figure out all the right questions after that. If you want to help kids at music, just go to a school and start doing that. And then all the other answers will figure themselves out, after you get inspired by what you want to do. Then you can get connected with the kids or get connected to the cause or get connected to the issue. All that other stuff around you will just start turning right in your head. So just go ahead and do the first step first. That s the only way. But how else do you figure you can chase your dreams?
About: Anne M. Mahlum is the Founder and CEO of Back on My Feet (BoMF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating independence and self-sufficiency within the homeless and other underserved populations by first engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem. Anne is responsible for the vision, strategy and national fundraising efforts for Back on My Feet as it expands across the country. To help, you can blog about BoMF or send a donation.
Image by Pink Sherbet Photography.