Getting anywhere in life is largely about showing up every day.
That’s it. At least, that’s how it starts—with getting up every morning and hitting the streets, always with people you’ve never met and many who don’t trust you as far as they could throw a battleship.
For Hamilton native Cathryn Sanderson, this is where it’s at; and where it’s been for almost a decade—out on the streets of Philadelphia in the otherworldly pre-dawn hours, helping people out of the sometimes terrifying states they live in. Sanderson is the executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of Back on My Feet (or, more commonly, BoMF), a national nonprofit that looks to change lives in literal one-step-at-a-time fashion by getting homeless (typically) people running.
That’s not a metaphor, they actually run.
“There’s a lot more strategy to it than that,” Sanderson says.
But that’s, at least, where it starts.
The general strategy is this: Someone in a bad way, maybe homeless, maybe adjusting to life after prison, maybe getting off drugs, maybe all of that, signs up with BoMF. That person gets a new pair of sneakers from the organization and then shows up at a designated meeting place by 6 a.m. to start a run through the city. If that person shows up for 90 percent of the runs over the course of 30 days, he now has access to a wealth of free services through BoMF to get him work. Services like finding housing, skills training, interviewing for a job, and resume writing.
What, you didn’t think homeless people had resumes? That’s one of the common stereotypes about homeless people that Sanderson says she has to work to break every day. But since she joined the organization as an intern in 2009, she has seen the gamut of former lives run before her. Some people in the program used to be incarcerated and grew up in situations so dire you’d swear it was crime fiction. Some are veterans. Some are women who escaped domestic abuse.
Others used to be lawyers or doctors—people who’d “made it” in life, and then, by any number and type of circumstance, lost everything they had. It’s a lot easier for your life to fall apart than you care to acknowledge, Sanderson says. But that’s why her organization is about getting you back to a life that doesn’t involve homeless shelters and the accompanying stereotypes people have about people who are outside the borders of the American Dream.
Another stereotype about homeless people is that they’re lazy. Ignoring the myriad reports of how many homeless people actually work one or more full-time jobs, there’s the fact that BoMF’s “members” (as opposed to the volunteers who help get the members back on their feet) get up every morning at 5 or so to meet up by 6, for all but two or three days every month, and commit to running the urban course.
“It can’t be anyone and everyone,” Sanderson admits. BoMF members need to be people who will commit to showing up every day to prove they’re serious about getting out of a bad situation. These are people, she says, who can build relationships and, frankly, summon a kind of courage she doesn’t find in everyone.
Think, for instance, about the fact that the majority of BoMF members come from backgrounds of abuse and violence and crime; backgrounds in which putting your trust in anyone but yourself could realistically lead to you being beaten down or outright killed. Their whole lives have revolved around bad neighborhoods, criminals, gangs, prison and neglect. Now they want to make their lives better, and they’re told that to do that, they need to meet up with a group of strangers on a dark street before the sun comes up, in order to run through neighborhoods they might not want to revisit.
‘I wanted to live and breathe this every day. I was working 14-hour days, and I wanted to understand this more.’
Sanderson refers to the members as “brave and bold” and roundly courageous. She’s especially impressed with one member who is blind, who has to be led by the hand every day, by someone she might have never met.
BoMF has volunteers and members in 12 American cities. Philadelphia was the first and remains the headquarters of the organization’s national offices. The organization partners with certain shelters in the cities where they operate to offer a path towards housing outside the worst neighborhoods and work that pays a living wage, Sanderson says.
It’s worth noting that members don’t have to actually run, by the way. They can trot or walk, or, as in the case with some members, finish the morning route with the aid of a walker.
The point is, it’s not a race. It’s an opportunity for people who want to take it, and the only payment those people make is to just keep showing up.
One question Sanderson gets a lot is how running came to be the thing here. But running, she says, like all forms of exercise, is a discipline, and discipline is transferable. If you can commit to waking up before the sun every day and going for a run and opening yourself up to strangers and building a community through these relationships, she says, you can commit to working a job and paying your bills.
Another question she gets all the time is about how often she runs. The thing is, she doesn’t. Not often, anyway. Sanderson is now 32, but back in her high school days at Steinert, she ran cross-country.
“And I sprained my ankle about a thousand times,” she says.
So running is not so easy for her, but she says “I do fitness a lot these days.” That could mean some time on a treadmill, but it often means a good Crossfit workout. She tries to stay as strong as she can, but she admits “I feel my back a little more than I did last year” whenever she works out a little too hard.
But, following her organization’s mantra, Sanderson tries not to measure herself by the weight and the repetitions.
“I use the Back on My Feet mentality,” she says. “Did I just show up today?”
Showing up every day was how Sanderson rose from the intern’s desk to leading the Philadelphia office of BoMF. As a kid raised by a single mom, she was always doing some kind of volunteer service work. Some of that was through her church, but for a while she volunteered at the War Memorial in Trenton for the trade-off of getting to see shows for free.
She liked people and she liked teaching and helping, so when she graduated from Rider University with a bachelor’s in English, she figured she’d be a teacher. Instead of working in a school, though, she found work at an education-based group home for at-risk girls in Phoenix.
“I saw a lot of turnover, and I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. Apart from the long days, communication between the people running the operation and the people working for it was spotty at best. Morale suffered. So, of course, did the girls.
“Communication is so important,” she says. “It trickles down. You just saw everyone struggle.”
Sanderson says she wanted to find ways to run nonprofits better, so she applied to schools to study nonprofit management.
“Miraculously, I got into a good one,” she says.
The good one was Penn, where in 2009 she was placed in an internship with then-fledgling BoMF. At that time, the organization was just opening its second office in Baltimore, and the energy was through the ceiling.
“I wanted to live and breathe this every day,” she says. “I was working 14-hour days, and I wanted to understand this more. Everything really mattered. It still does.”
Paper-clipping and various other intern-level grunt work mixed well enough with her passion for BoMF to get her to the executive director’s chair by the end of her 20s. Some days, she says, she’s still not sure how she was entrusted with that kind of responsibility at such a young age.
“I’m a regular person with dirty dishes in the sink,” she says. “It’s very humbling.”
But she keeps her perspective by reminding herself that “we’re all just some person” in this world. Whoever you are and whatever you do, “We’re all just some guy.”
Does Sanderson want to run the entire BoMF operation? Too early to tell. She’s not ruling it out, but she’s also feeling the itch to move on to something entrepreneurial. She’s creative and loves marketing, so she’s wondering how that all might play into a new venture for her.
One thing she’s not is concerned.
“I don’t know where my path will lead,” she says. “I really have no idea, and I respect that.”
For now she plans to just keep showing up for the run.
BoMF’s major fundraiser, the Stroehmann Bakeries Back on My Feet 5-Miler, is Saturday, March 24 at 8 a.m. For more information, go to philadelphia.backonmyfeet.org.