“Sometimes we have to go right into the fire in order to find our true healing.”
I applaud Haverford College and the Center for Career and Professional Advising for supporting Back on My Feet during Sneaker Week! This week, which is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, allows us to reflect on these important issues and become advocates for thoughtful approaches to foster self-sufficiency for those experiencing homelessness. Here is my story:
I toed the line on a frigid February morning. In just a few minutes, my nine-year old son Jack and I would begin his first 5k running race. I turned to a man wearing a jacket emblazoned with a logo that read “Back on My Feet” and asked what it meant. He responded, “I used to be homeless, but I’m not anymore”. Jack turned to me with a look of confusion but just then, the starting gun was fired and the man ran off.
I have lived a very fortunate life. I met my wife Ellie in September of my freshman year at Haverford College. I was fortunate enough to become a Whitehead Scholar, gaining skills at a financial planning firm after my junior year. I got a great job, working for Morgan Stanley. I worked hard and when my boss left to start her own investment firm, she asked me to join her. The firm was successful, allowing me to leave to start by own firm several years later. A led to B led to C led to D. A charmed life.
Service was important to me but it often fell by the wayside. Charity mostly meant writing a check to support a fundraiser a friend had organized. When my son looked at me after the man told us he used to be homeless, the question his eyes asked was “how can this be real?” Soon thereafter, he came to me with tears in his eyes, asking me to give the seven dollars he was holding, his entire life’s savings, to people who had no shelter.
I was scared, very scared. But it was also time to do more. Volunteering meant recognizing people were hurting and needed someone to acknowledge, support and love them. It meant acknowledging that poverty in our community was real and not just a cause I supported with a couple clicks to “donate here.” Making a personal commitment of my time meant I would touch, hear and feel all these difficult things. Sometimes these efforts would lead to failure. And sometimes to success.
I joined Back on My Feet for my first group run on an early morning in March. We greeted each other that day and every day, with a hug and the hug I received from those experiencing homelessness conveyed to me, “its okay friend, we are glad you are here”. At this time of day, I am barely alive – but through the fellowship of these men and women, I am born anew each day. I’ve come out once or twice a week since then. Back on My Feet has restored a sense of wonder and reinvigorated joy within me as I have watch self-pride, self-awareness, self-confidence and self-sufficiency unfold before my very eyes.
In April, I quit my job. It had been a wonderful career – I was paid to study, to make informed decisions with incomplete information. I loved it. But it was time for a change. At the age of 40, I have embarked on a new career in the world of service and non-profits. The courage that my new running buddies from Back on My Feet instilled in me allowed me to take a risk, to start on something that didn’t have a clear endpoint or measure of success. And to trust that as I followed whatever path I was on, the next turn would be clear once I got to it. Instead of A leads to B, now A leads to, well, I don’t know what A leads to. But the journey feels fine and is real.
Six months after I met the man on the starting line on that chilly February morning, I caught back up to him again. This man, who had once been homeless and has lived through everything imaginable, was 45 miles in to a 24-hour ultramarathon with just minutes to go. He had been on his feet the entire time. A van pulled up to take us back to the start/finish area, as the race was over. I called to the man to hop in to the van. But he refused and kept running, “Well, I’m not done!” he declared. Neither am I.
Back on My Feet uses running to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness. For many, the lack of regular routines and a strong supporting network of family and friends has made daily life a struggle. The staff, volunteers and alumni of Back on My Feet help rebuild these vital elements in its members, rekindling the flame of self-worth and confidence. Through running, members transform their lives and take initiative to build skills, regain employment and move to their own home. We, a mix of resident members and volunteers, run each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 5:30 A.M. at several locations in downtown Philadelphia. New members who have been staying in a shelter join us for a week of running (or walking). After this week, they are given running shoes. Several runs later, they receive running clothing. And after a month of perfect attendance, members qualify for the “Next Steps” program wherein members work with Back on My Feet staff to identify the education, skills, clothing and transportation needs critical to regaining self-sufficiency. Members apply for grants for one-time expenses like certifications, security deposits and work equipment. Back on My Feet has helped over 1,000 individuals gain employment and sees 50% of its members successfully transition back to employment and/or housing.
Marc Balcer ’96