Two Baltimore teams have joined Back On My Feet, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that assists homeless men and women who train to run a marathon - and rebuild their lives in the process.
The organization uses running to teach clients goal-setting, responsibility and perseverance, said Barry M. Smith, a counselor and manager at Helping Up Mission. The other team is based at the Maryland Center for Veterans.
On Friday, their dedication was put to the test as seven mission clients and about a dozen volunteers met for a 5:30 a.m. run in their third week of training.
"The hope is if they learn, they will be able to take these same skills and cope with issues like homelessness and finding a job," Smith said.
A group of clients from Helping Up Mission ran in different races in the Baltimore Running Festival last year, before Back On My Feet groups launched in Baltimore last month, Smith said.
The Helping Up Mission group meets for runs at 5:30 a.m. three days a week. They will soon start longer runs on Saturdays, Smith said. They also get together for monthly group meetings and social events.
Running has obvious physical benefits, but the mental and spiritual benefits can have an even greater impact, participants said.
"It rejuvenates your body and your mind," said Richard Smith, 23. The Massachusetts native used to play football as a child and joined the running group because he wanted to try something different while recovering from his alcohol addiction.
"If nothing changes, nothing changes," he said Friday, as he and other runners met at a parking lot near the mission, doing jumping jacks, lunges and stretches to warm up. "You want to try positive things, things to stay clean."
Before setting out on their run in the rain, they gathered in a circle - arms on one another's shoulders - for a prayer and introduction of new volunteers. Then they split up to run either three miles or 1 1/2 miles.
Runners who returned first cheered for the others. Then the group went indoors for the handing out of rewards for achieving milestones.
Mike DiJulia, the team leader, congratulated them for completing the run despite the precipitation, pointing out that it could motivate them to get up when it's 65 degrees and sunny. "I got up on a rainy day for running, so why not now?" he said.
Andy Heggins Jr., 57, said he has been going to the gym five days a week while he has been with the mission to recover from his addictions. The running helps him even more. "For an old man, I feel fantastic," he said.
Rob Dickson, 46, ran the full marathon last year on the Helping Up Mission team. He said he used to run track and cross country in college before developing an addiction to crack cocaine.
He always wanted to get back into running, but couldn't break his addiction. "I tried to run in 2007, but I was getting high instead," Dickson said.
But in November 2007, he joined the drug treatment program at Helping Up Mission. By the following October, he was running the marathon - and has begun repairing damage in other areas in his life, including rebuilding personal relationships.
"I finished the race. It was definitely my very own personal victory," Dickson said.
Back On My Feet provides clients with shoes and other gear, pays their race entry fees and provides incentives when they reach milestones. On Friday, one participant received a wristband for running a total of five miles and two others received 7-Eleven gift cards for reaching 10 miles.
"They spend most of their lives not accomplishing anything, and they start looking for something to accomplish," said Barry Smith, the Helping Up Mission counselor.
Back On My Feet is looking for volunteers to train with their clients. For more information, backonmyfeet.org