Christian Science Monitor

She Gives a Sense Of Community And Purpose To Homeless Through a Running Club

When Katy Sherratt, a social innovator and strategy consultant, heard about how the nonprofit Back on My Feet blends a running club with workforce training and housing support for individuals experiencing homelessness, she was intrigued.

“There was just something about the nature of how they were tackling a social issue that was one of the most appealing things I’ve ever heard,” Ms. Sherratt says.

Despite not being a runner – or a morning person – she was interested enough to join the Philadelphia-based organization for one of its 5:30 a.m.runs, during which she met Sandra, a beneficiary of the nonprofit.

“She literally changed my perspective on how powerful that community environment on that morning run is for someone who might have never had community … [or] just doesn’t know support in the way that I knew support growing up,” she says.

Sherratt was hooked, and some five years ago became chief executive officer of the organization, which since its founding in 2007 has worked to combat homelessness through its unusual approach.

How It Works

Back on My Feet has clubs in 12 major cities across the United States. In each club, the process begins the same way: An invitation is extended to those staying in shelters or recovery centers to join in an early morning run. Anyone who needs running shoes is provided with a pair.

New members are challenged to make the following commitment: over a 30-day period, participate in 90 percent of the runs, which are held three times a week. Most new members – 75 percent, Sherratt says – succeed in keeping that commitment. They then move on to what the nonprofit calls “next steps,” including the workforce training and housing support.

Something that guides all the nonprofit’s activities is a sense of community. When Back on My Feet participants are part of a network and have its support, Sherratt says, they tend to see themselves in a way that helps them emerge from homelessness and make meaningful contributions to society.

That emphasis on community is a key example of how the nonprofit blends psychological and practical support.

“The majority of organizations out there just go after the practical,” Sherratt says. At her organization, the running component is “the tool to get them into the community and demonstrate self-esteem,” she says.

“It is more about that community component of bringing [together] demographics and types of individuals and people going through types of experiences. [It] normalizes us all,” she explains.

Since its launch, Back on My Feet has helped more than 5,500 individuals find employment, housing, or both. And collectively, half a million miles have been run. Of those members who secure employment, 90 percent retain their jobs; in the first year, 60 percent get a promotion and 20 percent get a wage increase.

The nonprofit’s long-term partnerships with employers like Marriott enable members to find jobs that can lead to self-sufficiency and economic security. One member, Sherratt says, is a concierge at a prestigious San Francisco hotel, while in Philadelphia there is a pizza shop that hires members almost exclusively.

Sherratt brings to the organization more than 15 years of leadership experience. She previously led global projects for the management consulting firm Accenture in both Britain and the United States.

Since she has been at the helm of Back on My Feet, the organization says its funding has increased by more than half, owing to the cultivation of both existing and new partnerships and revenue streams. Another factor in the additional resources: the organization’s expansion to other cities, which Sherratt has overseen.

Back on My Feet also calculates that under Sherratt’s leadership the effects of the organization’s programming have increased by more than 75 percent.

One former member of Back on My Feet is Roderick T., a native Baltimorean who was recovering from a heroin addiction and participating in a drug court program when he learned of the nonprofit’s chapter there.

“I hadn’t had a reason to smile in years and hadn’t had any normal, positive people in my life in quite some time,” says the military veteran in an email interview, which was facilitated by Back on My Feet. “I wanted to get clean [and] healthy, and become a positive member of society, but had no idea how.”

He met a member of the organization and was invited to join. He worked toward his recovery, returned to school, and received support from the nonprofit.

“The great people of [Back on My Feet] became my people, and my places and things changed overnight,” says Roderick, who did not give his full last name. “The volunteers treated me like no one has in years; no one judged me, and they befriended me when they had every reason in the world not to.”

Now a homeowner, he holds a college degree and is pursuing another degree while supervising a 135-bed homeless shelter in Baltimore. “Back on My Feet comes in and provides hope, builds confidence, and makes you feel like you are part of something,” he says. “By helping us better our lives, it gives us the opportunity to again become the father, sons, brothers, and loved ones that we once were.”

One Businessperson’s Involvement

One businessperson who assists Back on My Feet members in finding jobs is Peter Cole, managing director of business integration at Marriott International. In fact, he represents Marriott on the nonprofit’s board of directors. On a more personal level, he participates in some of the morning runs when he travels for work.

“The program uses the sense of self-worth and dedication to help people experiencing homelessness turn their life around,” says Mr. Cole in an email interview. “Getting our members through this process gets them back into the community, in a way that makes them valuable contributing members of that community. We are literally changing lives and improving communities by running together three mornings a week.”

Cole speaks highly of Sherratt and her commitment to Back on My Feet.

“Katy has a significant passion for this work,” he says. “Her background with Accenture has helped us continue to build the organizational structure and drive the organization to deliver the member benefits needed.”

He notes the increase in revenues under Sherratt’s leadership, as well as enlargement in the membership base and the opening of yet another chapter, in San Francisco.

“She has helped put in place a structure that leverages the passion and commitment of the chapter directors with support from the national organization,” he adds. “Katy is helping set the foundation for future growth while still efficiently managing the organization.”
Last year, half of the nonprofit’s $7.5 million budget was supported by corporations. The next biggest source of funding was from individuals. Foundations contributed as well.

Looking forward, Sherratt hopes to expand to even more cities, as well as to branch out and serve other populations, possibly including those aging out of foster care and those in reentry facilities following incarceration.

“I know our program can be meaningful and impactful to other people who have lost that network for any reason,” she says, referring to the community nature of Back on My Feet’s approach. “We can stop them from getting to that shelter door in the first place.”

She speaks about what she sees as a worsening problem: individuals across the US feeling more isolated and finding themselves without a network of people who believe in them.

“Some never have had that, or don’t have that,” she says. “It feels like it is only getting exacerbated, and I want to make sure that we continue to be there. I don’t know how you couldn’t be passionate about it.”

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