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Homeless turn lives around step by step

By Anne M. Mahlum, Special to CNN
Anne Mahlum founded a nonprofit organization to help the homeless turn their lives around.
Anne Mahlum founded a nonprofit organization to help the homeless turn their lives around.
  • Anne M. Mahlum founded Back on My Feet to help the homeless in Philadelphia
  • Back on My Feet works with 29 homeless shelters and has more than 400 active members
  • Mahlum: Participation must be voluntary for people to make real changes in their lives
  • People have a desire to be recognized, valued, appreciated, loved and cared for, she says

Editor's note: Anne M. Mahlum, a 2008 Top 10 CNN Hero, is founder and president of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit organization. Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" Thanksgiving night at 8 p.m.ET/5 p.m. PT on CNN/U.S. The show airs on CNN International on Thursday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. ET and Friday November 26 at 5 a.m. ET, 1100/2200 Berlin and 0900/1800 Hong Kong.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Three and a half years ago, I ran a mile with nine men who were living at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in Philadelphia,. Wanting to start a running club at this homeless shelter came from passing this facility on my morning run and seeing a group of men congregating outside on the corner.

I was quickly drawn to them as they reminded me a lot of my dad, who I love dearly but unfortunately has suffered from addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling for much of his life.

My dad and I have always had a very special, sarcastic rapport and one of the hardest things I have gone through was being a teenager and not being able to figure out a way to save my dad from his gambling addiction, which ended up tearing apart our family.

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To save myself from the despair, I ran a lot, and 10 years later is when I finally found the road that made my life make sense and it started with these nine guys.

I thought in some spiritual cosmic way that I could vicariously help my dad by helping these men.

To save myself from the despair, I ran ...
--Anne M. Mahlum
  • Homelessness
  • Social Issues
  • Philadelphia
  • Atlanta
  • Chicago

Running doesn't discriminate. It doesn't matter whether you're white, black, rich, poor, homeless or not. I wanted to share this sport with these guys in hopes they would reap the same benefits I did -- better self-esteem, confidence and discipline. But, it didn't take long to see that it was turning into so much more.

An environment had been created where people, regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status, were treated with respect, appreciation and genuine care and concern for each other. It was an environment that had been missing from their lives, and it was amazing to watch the changes in attitude and behavior that were occurring.

A vision quickly formed about building a program. It would start with running, and through dedication, hard work and commitment, we would connect our members to job training and educational programs, employment partners and housing opportunities, but only when our members were ready for those steps. Each person would also have the opportunity to earn approved grant money to move his or her life forward.

Today, Back on My Feet has operations in five cities (Philadelphia; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Boston, Massachusetts) and works with 29 homeless shelters.

The organization has more than 400 active members and has helped close to 450 individuals find a better road in life. We are expanding to five more cities in 2011, of which four have been chosen -- Indianapolis, Indiana; Dallas, Texas; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Atlanta, Georgia.

It's amazing how we forget that as people, we have similar traits, whether we're homeless or not.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs explains this best. When we are hungry, our No. 1 priority becomes looking for food. When it's cold outside, we seek shelter.

Right above those needs is an innate desire to be recognized, valued, appreciated, loved and cared for. These desires, just like those of food and shelter, do not become less important as we grow older. Think about the reasons why you may have quit a job or a relationship. Chances are feeling unappreciated or undervalued is one of them.

The only way for real change to happen in someone's life is for that person to voluntarily participate in making those changes. Many programs try and force people to do things, but when does forcing anyone to do anything ever have long-lasting sustainable results?

Take this simple example. Let's say you have a 6-year old who hates vegetables and won't eat them. So, you tell him if he doesn't eat his vegetables that he won't be able to play with his favorite toy. As long as you are there to enforce that rule, your 6-year old may very well eat his vegetables. But what happens when he is at a friend's house and that rule doesn't apply? This method does not solve the problem.

You have to figure out a way to get your kid to want to eat his vegetables and that is done by giving the vegetables value in a way that your child can relate to. What if instead you told your child that it is vegetables, not candy or soda, that will make him big and strong like his dad or older brother?

Back on My Feet takes this approach to the homeless community.

We do not offer food or shelter, which in turn means we don't use threat tactics around those basic human needs. The choice to get up at 5:30 a.m. and come out to run is one that is voluntary. Everyone -- those who are homeless and those who are not -- are there because they want to be.

They are there because they have found an environment that offers them respect, value, appreciation and friendship. When you offer that to someone, it is extraordinary what can happen.

While Back on My Feet's first priority is to help people discover their potential and capabilities to get them on a road filled with hope, happiness and prosperity, its mission is to also remind us that while there are many differences between us, there are more similarities. By focusing on those similarities, we are reminded that we are all on the same team.

I am humbled every day by the people invested in Back on My Feet's mission, and together we have the ability to make real, positive, sustainable change in the world ... one mile at a time.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anne M. Mahlum.