Independent Sector

Feeling the Virtual Life-changing Power of Running

Katy Sherratt, CEO of national nonprofit Back on My Feet, knows these things for sure: you can help someone who is homeless take the first step toward a new life by simply giving them a running start. And, for potential donors and funders, as well as volunteers and other supporters, there is nothing more convincing about the life-changing power of running than experiencing it yourself.

Back on My Feet was founded in 2007 in Philadelphia by a long-time runner who ran by a group of homeless men one day and invited them to run along with her. Headquartered in Philadelphia with chapters in 12 major cities, and further expansion planned, the nonprofit seeks to transform society’s approach to homelessness, using running as the hook to first restore confidence, strength, and self-esteem.

To participate, the organization’s members must commit to 30 days of running with staff, volunteers, funder employees, and other supporters at 5:45 am three times a week, with 90 percent attendance. In return, they get a shirt, running shoes, and incentives, such as a t-shirt, or winter gear, as they reach milestones along the way. Those who successfully complete the 30 days move on to the Next Steps phase, where they are offered counseling, job training, employment referrals, housing, and access to financial aid for a security deposit and first-month’s rent.

While the early-morning run time can be daunting, members slowly begin to feel better about themselves and each run’s accomplishment, becoming increasingly confident and accountable, and enjoying being part of a team of people who say, “You can do this. We believe in you, and we want you to believe in yourself.”

“These are people who face so many obstacles and have literally been beaten down by life,” Sherratt explains. “They don’t feel society wants to help them. Then they see the volunteers and staff who are out early to run with them, and they say, ‘I can’t believe these people are actually here for me.’”

Sherratt, a former runner named in 2016 among Women’s Running Magazine’s “Top 20 Gamechangers,” knows how life-changing running can be. She’d spent much of her working life in the corporate world of strategic consulting. Then one day she volunteered for a morning run along with some of her clients, where she met and ran alongside a woman named Sandra.

“I was intrigued by her openness about what she’d been through, and the change I saw in her after a two-mile jog-walk,” Sherratt explained. “Seeing Sandra’s face light up as others cheered her along, you realize the psychological component of what running does. I got passionate about it after that first run. And it changed my life.” So complete was the change, Sherratt eventually left her corporate gig, and joined Back on My Feet in 2012.

Joining a Morning Run via Virtual Reality

Sherratt wanted others to feel the transformation as she had. “It makes sense to me when I explain it, but it’s very hard to imagine the power to change unless you’ve been out on a morning run.”

“I go to big donor meetings all the time, and while I try to explain it, many can’t make it on a morning run. So I thought, maybe I can bring the run to them.” She considered virtual reality (VR), but prohibitive costs were a concern. Sherratt turned to her board members for help, and was put in touch with a contact at Working Man Digital. That contact led to a connection with Outer Realm, who generously created and contributed a compelling VR movie that allows the viewer to “join” a group morning run on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and hear a member describe the impact on his life.

Sherratt also connected with Samsung, who donated VR headsets that bring “realness” to listening to a member tell his moving story. The VR movie’s impact is so stunning, it is now a standard feature at Back on My Feet’s major fundraising gala, and shown during potential donor meetings.

Knowing that what they do has a “soft side,” Sherratt supports Back on My Feet’s achievements with a full page of statistics on their website, proving with strong data the community, economic, health, and social impact of running and the services they provide.

“We’re not a running club. We’re making a real impact. I want to demonstrate that to our donors, funders, supporters, and volunteers, and to make sure that our members are getting the resources and outcomes they desire by first putting that pair of sneakers on.”

Of course, while it’s great to experience the virtual reality of the power of running, there’s no better way to prove its impact than by hearing it straight from those whose lives have been made better. “We bring members back to talk about what has happened to them since going through our program,” says Sherratt. “Really, they’re our best advocates.”

To experience the transforming power of running, click here and take a virtual run along Skid Row with Back on My Feet. And be sure to join other changemakers in Los Angeles, November 14-16, as we work to build a better world together at Upswell LA.