Woman Starts Over at 70

Running group gets homeless back on their feet

A lot of people find a way to fit exercise into their day. A quick run burns off calories or steam, perhaps. That jog, though, means so much more for those who are trying to get back on their feet.

"They're getting a mental step up. A lot of these individuals haven't accomplished a lot recently, and they're down and have had poor self esteem," explained Kristen Kouk with the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of Back on My Feet. "So to use running as tool to teach self confidence and strength, it's a huge step up for them. A lot of them will cross a finish line at a race, and you can also see on their faces their crossing a mental finish line."

Back on My Feet (BoMF) started in Philadelphia in 2007 and expanded to Dallas-Fort Worth in February 2011.

The website describes the program as "a 6-9 month program that works with individuals living in homeless facilities. Teams are formed at our partner facilities, where the foundation of BoMF is laid through dedication to running. After 30 days in our program, each member who maintains 90% attendance moves to the Next Steps phase. Next Steps enables members to move towards self-sufficiency through educational and job training opportunities. Additionally, each member has the opportunity to earn $1,250 in financial aid to assist in their efforts toward self-sufficiency."

More than 50 residents at The Bridge, Dallas Life and the Salvation Army Carr P. Collins joined BoMF and working their way through the program.

Ardelia Polk is one of them. Her nearly 40-year marriage ended last spring. Her three grown children have problems of their own. She had no where to go.

"After the divorce was final, I didn't have any place else to stay," Polk said. "I still don't have any place to stay but the Salvation Army."

Polk found a place to stay and support at the Salvation Army Carr P. Collins Center. She joined BoMF, and discovered she could run and start again at age 70.

"I chose not to just sit in a chair or lie in bed and rest all the time. I got up on my feet. I walked and now I can run," said Polk. "I feel great just to be running because when I first joined Back on My Feet, I couldn't run. I could just walk. So it's a privilege"

Three mornings a week at 5:45, Polk runs with other BoMF members and volunteers. It's usually about a mile and half, but Polk has also been in 5K races and placed in her age group.

"Ardelia is one of those things where you just can't judge a book by its cover. You see an older lady that you can't tell if she's homeless or not homeless, and then you see her cross a finish line or cross a 5k and come in third or second or first in her age group, and you're just kind of blown away," said Kristen Kouk, the director of communications and corporate relations for BoMF.

Running is just one step on Polk's journey to get back on her feet. Her continued participation qualified her for computer and financial literacy classes. Her destination is to move from the Salvation Army and into her own house.

Two months ago, she took a big step toward that goal. She got a job as housekeeper at the Dallas Marriott Market Center.

"I said, 'I'm just going to work to save some money to get a place to stay.' And here I am," said Polk. "It feels good because I know I'm saving what I make, and then I know I will have a place to stay."

"It's a great feeling to see them succeed," said Suzy Hart, general manager at the Dallas Marriott Market Center. Marriott is a national BoMF sponsor and Hart is the board at the local chapter.

She understood BoMF participants ultimately needed jobs and a paycheck. Her hotel became the first in the country to do that. Nine members of her staff came through BoMF.

"They have benefits, good jobs, 40 hours a week," Hart said. "They're not looking for hand outs. They're looking to earn their way back in with running, education, financial courses. And when they come to the Marriott, they are some of the hardest workers we have."

Hart said there's a lesson to be learned from her BoMF team members. "Any one of us could be in their shoes. Any of us could have their lives 'cuz the face of homelessness has changed."

Other members of the BoMF group in Dallas are also optimistic about their futures.

Military veteran Matthew Deyermond came to Dallas on a business trip, then his company went bankrupt, stranding him with only two weeks pay. "It's not over," said Deyermond. "It may seem bleak and dismal, and it may seem like you may never get back on your feet, but like we like to say, we're actually running into our future and putting our past behind us."

La Tonya Golden got laid off from her job at Ford in Detroit. She searched on the Internet for best places to get a job, saw it was Dallas and bought a one-way ticket. She knew she had to live in a homeless shelter until she got a job and saved money for something permanent. She describes her impact of BoMF as "grace."

Stacy Barnett, a mother of three, got out of addiction and abuse. She signed the lease on a town home last week and moves in right before Thanksgiving. "I'm very proud also, and optimistic about my future," said Barnett.

"To have that spirit, that indomitable 'I can survive anything spirit' and come out and run with back on my feet is admirable and it's inspirational," said Kouk.

The "Back on My Feet" group will be at Saturday's "Help the Homeless Walk and 5K" in Dallas. This year's event honors homeless veterans. Dallas estimates veterans make up 20-percent of the city's homeless population.

Register on line for the 5K and use the promo code BOMF to donate to the group a portion of the registration cost.

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