News & Politics

Great Strides

How one woman is helping the homeless put one foot in front of the other.

When Anne Mahlum lived in Philadelphia, her daily runs took her past a homeless shelter. “There was always this group of guys standing out there,” says Mahlum. “They’d ask me if I was ever going to stop running, and I’d ask them if they were ever going to start.

“One day I turned and thought, ‘Here I am moving my life forward every day, and I’m leaving these guys in the same spot.’ ”

Mahlum—who grew up in North Dakota and earned a master’s in political communications at American University—called the shelter director to say she wanted to take some of the homeless running. “He e-mailed me: ‘All right, nine guys want to do this and here are their shoe sizes.’ ”

This month, Back on My Feet, Mahlum’s running club for the homeless, which also has a Baltimore chapter, expands to Washington. The road hasn’t been easy.

On that first run, she recalls, “they looked at me like, ‘Who is this girl and what does she think she could possibly know about us?’ ’’

Turns out, a lot.

“When I was 16, my dad pretty much gambled away everything we owned,” says Mahlum, 29. “So I opened up about my dad’s addiction and how the only thing that made me feel good was running. That motion of moving my body forward helped me understand a lot of things about life.”

Within weeks she began to notice the runners’ “pride and the excitement about doing something positive. I realized they didn’t have an environment where people would tell them, ‘You’re doing a good job—keep it up.’ ”

By teaming with local organizations and sponsors such as Nike, the group has used its connections and grants to help more than 120 people enroll in school or job training in the past year. Some 55 have run full or half marathons.

Back on My Feet also enlists volunteers to run with the homeless.

“I used to never want to run with anybody, and I found how much more enjoyable it is when you share that experience,” Mahlum says. “Your emotions just sweat out of you.”

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.