Summer intern Kelsy McCraw attended a Back on My Feet run one morning in July. She thought she’d go out, do one run with them, and then do a quick report. But after that initial run, McCraw, a former soccer player at Washington and Lee University, was hooked. She spent five weeks running with the BoMF group. Below is her report.
Sheretta Bodem is shy–not bashfully shy like a child, but hesitantly shy like somebody who’s never been able to depend on anyone. This tough-skinned 25-year-old is about 5 feet 2 inches tall with a curvy figure that is usually hidden in t-shirts, pants, and sneakers. A baseball hat sits atop her braided black hair, slung so low that it just shades her dark brown eyes, as if to reiterate her don’t-mind-me timidity. She sits across the table from me in a back storage room at Dallas LIFE, as she tells me why she walked into the shelter’s doors last November.
She’s a woman of few words, most of Bodem’s answers to my questions are succinct and to the point, but the tall wall she’s built was how she learned to survive.
Bodem says she was spoiled growing up–she always did and got what she wanted. Her mother was a truck driver, so circumstance may have edited the scope of those desires. Nevertheless, her mostly absent parent gave her little in the form of life direction. When her mom would go on her three-month driving stints, Bodem and her younger brother would stay at their less-than-attentive aunt’s home in Richland.
With no discipline, Bodem dropped out of high school at 17 because, as she explains it, it just didn’t seem that important. So, she settled at her aunt’s house with no job, no schooling, and no desire for either. Bodem describes this time in her life as “nothing,” just doing nothing and no plans to change it. At 21, she had her daughter, and at 23, her son. Bodem ruled out living with either of her children’s fathers. “I didn’t want my children to grow up in that kind of environment,” she says. Her “nothing” life at her aunt’s lingered on for a few years until her aunt began clearly favoring one of her children. Bodem wouldn’t elaborate about what happened other than “some other stuff happened…just bad stuff.” She says she really had no choice but to move out. At this point, she had lost contact with her mother and brother. So, with no other place to turn, she sought out Dallas LIFE.
Tears well in her eyes as she tries to describe what the first few days in the shelter were like. She can’t verbalize those feelings, but the crumbling of her emotional stronghold shows just how scary the experience must have been. Right then, she proudly shows me her travel coffee mug that has a printed out picture of her pride-and-joys’ smiling faces on it. She wants a better life for them, but worries what they will think of their days in the shelter 10 years from now.
She may not have planned for her children, but they have given her purpose. At first, going to Dallas LIFE was her way out of the nothingness, but her plan ended there. Then, three months after arriving at Dallas LIFE, after the first few weeks sleeping on floor mats with dozens others in a large room, after the next few weeks of sleeping on cots with only a single dozen other people, after moving to the second floor of the facility into her own room with her children, her program counselor told her about a program called Back on My Feet.
The national organization, Back on My Feet, opened its Dallas chapter last February. The program is simple: a running team for people experiencing homelessness–not homeless people, because BoMF maintains that homelessness is a temporary state. The implications for such a simple idea are incredible, but completely obvious in a why-didn’t-I-think-of that way to anyone who has ever been on a sports team. The beauty of BoMF lies in the intangible and is evident in its mission statement: “Back on My Feet promotes the self-sufficiency of those experiencing homelessness by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength, and self-esteem.”
Unlike many other programs trying to solve homelessness, BoMF doesn’t give any handouts or gifts to its members. Teammates earn their spot on the three BoMF teams that are organized through the Salvation Army, the Bridge, and Dallas LIFE. At each of these locations, shelter residents earn more and more privacy in the facility for consecutive days committed to the shelter’s program, and the rooms with the most privacy are above the first floors of the facilities.
To be an eligible BoMF residential member (res-member), a resident must have been in her respective program for at least 30 consecutive days, must have moved above the first floor rooms, and must come with the highest recommendation from her program counselor. But even these requirements do not guarantee an immediate spot on the team, as long waiting lists are exponentially growing at each shelter.
The Dallas LIFE men’s program director Hurel Booker says he has a list nearly 20-residents long waiting to join their facility’s BoMF team. “(The residents) see the team together and hear them in the mornings and want to be a part of that,” he says. Bodem also explained that the teammates seem to have the closest relationships among the people in the shelter. “We look out for each other and build each other up,” she says.
The three teams add three to five new members each month and retain 85 percent of their members from month to month. Velez says those res-members who have dropped out of the program have reasons that range from new jobs getting in the way of participation to relapse. The program aims for steady, not explosive, growth to make its mission sustainable, because for every res-member added to the team, the program must also recruit non-residential members to run alongside them.
Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 5:45 a.m. runs start with a team warm-up and huddle outside of the team’s respective facility. A prayer is recited, a goal set, and a question-of-the-day asked. Then, res-members and non-res members team up to tackle the morning’s one- to three-mile route and discuss what genre of book they would want to write, or who, living or dead, they would invite to dinner. Every member sets his own pace–some are training for marathons, while others simple want to get his heart pumping–but, everyone waits for the last runner to finish the race in order to do a post-run cool-down and huddle.
Even with their concerted effort to grow slowly, the Dallas chapter of BoMF is the fastest growing of the eight national chapters, currently with 47 members on three teams. The flagship Philadelphia chapter, launched in 2007, has 57 members on six teams. BoMF Dallas program director Lea Velez says their growth says a lot about the need for the program in Dallas, but a lot more about the people of Dallas. “It’s a powerful equalizer in such a simple and basic way,” Velez says. “And people seem to be drawn to that.”
A high school softball and basketball player, Bodem was excited to join BoMF when it came to Dallas. “Sports have always been such a positive stress reliever,” she says. “I needed some of that.” Having been at LIFE for three months, she immediately qualified for membership. After a res-member orientation, she attended the mandatory two successive team meetings for the pre- and post- run huddles to show her commitment and support. Her BoMF t-shirt, running shorts, and running shoes, all donated by Run On!, were delivered to LIFE on Saturday, and she was a full-fledged teammate the following Monday.
Every teammate, res and non-res, is required to meet 90 percent attendance for team runs. However, non-res members have the option to dedicate themselves to only once or twice a week.
Once Bodem met 90 percent of attendance for 30 days, she was promoted to Next Steps membership, which provides educational and job-training opportunities such as rÃ©sumÃ© building and job-interview seminars. Also available in Next Steps is up to $1,250 in financial aid; however, each request for financial aid must be evaluated by the program’s national leaders to meet strict criteria that ensure the money used is to further the res-member’s professional or educational career.
Since its inception, BoMF Dallas has placed 13 of its 47 members in jobs and seven in independent housing. While those numbers seem small, it’s incredible to hear that some of those members have felony records and haven’t been able to gain employment in years. The program is able to do so by providing an opportunity for res-members to exemplify and prove their accountability, responsibility, and commitment to success. Local businesses, like the Marriot, work with BoMF because the program has proven to rehabilitate people experiencing homelessness into successful employees.
Now in his seventh year with LIFE, Booker says that BoMF is the best thing that’s happened to the shelter. “It’s made my job a lot easier,” he says. Booker works with LIFE residents trying to get employment, but says BoMF has been the fastest road to employment for its team members.
Bodem has yet to find a job, but counts the fact that she’s looking a major success. Before BoMF, a career or education never crossed her mind. “I just didn’t think about it, I didn’t think it was for me,” she says. Now, she has dreams. Big ones. Her first goal is completing her GED, but she hopes to one day become a police officer. Like anyone, she wants a house and a car for her and her kids, but mostly she just wants to set a positive example for her kids.
I’ve met with Bodem several times, but the only time she takes off her baseball cap is when she runs with her Back on My Feet team–that’s when you can really see her dreams, hear that she would invite her great-grandmother to dinner if she were still alive, and that she’d write a thriller novel if she could.
My last Wednesday-morning run with the Dallas LIFE team had an ironically appropriate question of the day: “What do you like the most about Back on My Feet?” As the team circled up after the last runners finished the day’s three-mile route, the lighthearted air from a job-well-done became still as we told each other our answers. Nearly everyone mentioned the people they’ve met as their favorite part, but it wasn’t until most of the way through the circle that someone struck at the heart of the matter. A tall, lanky man by the name of Roger, whose wrinkles reveal his years and bald-head affectionately earned him the nickname “Q-Ball,” couldn’t crack his usual class-clown jokes as he began to choke up. “You guys are my family,” he says. “You’re what keep me going. You’re it.” –Kelsy McCraw