A daunting 5 a.m. wake-up call is enough to deter most college students. But gleaming through the early morning darkness at the front gates of Georgetown University’s main campus is a bright white van filled with members of the Georgetown Running Club (GRC) on their way to the U.S. Capitol Building.
In collaboration with Back on My Feet (BoMF), a nonprofit organization that works to combat homelessness through running, GRC participates in Wednesday morning runs at the National Mall alongside homeless people, in pursuit of the Jesuit value of “People for Others.” GRC members say the group is working to help expand its reach outside the Georgetown neighborhood and burst through its privileged socioeconomic bubble through its philanthropic opportunities and community service.
BoMF not only changes the lives of its homeless members but also its volunteers. The community and friendships fostered by BoMF create an environment of empowerment that helps BoMF members “get back on their feet.”
Soraya Bata (SFS ’24), a frequent volunteer for BoMF through GRC, said she enjoys the tight-knit community formed through early morning runs.
“Showing up at 5:45 a.m. every week to run or walk with the same group of people is hard, but it’s also reassuring and grounded in consistency,” Bata said in an interview with The Hoya. “The hardship helps everyone bond with each other.”
The Ability to Change Lives
BoMF was founded in Philadelphia, Pa. in 2007 and now operates in 17 major cities. They have helped to employ and house over 7500 members and have over 150,000 volunteers, according to its website.
Mike Glover, a member of BoMF, began attending the runs in 2020 when he was in a drug addiction treatment program. After being encouraged by one of his friends to attend, he now participates in three different morning runs each week.
“I get to meet people that are going through what I am going through,” Glover said in an interview with The Hoya.
Glover will be three years sober March 11. He credits much of his addiction recovery to BoMF, which he said gave him structure and purpose.
“You can’t save all of them, but if you can save just one, that’s a blessing,” Glover said. “Back on My Feet saved my life.”
Jim Perreault is the core team member for Team Capitol Hill, the BoMF group that GRC directly works with. Perreault has been with BoMF for nearly a decade.
“A lot of people start off just walking, but a lot of them end up running and can run five miles or even a marathon,” Perreault said in an interview with The Hoya. “That gives them back their self-confidence.”
“I find it very spiritually empowering to go out and meet people from a very different walk of life and have a positive impact on their lives,” Perreault added. “In return, they give me a positive impact on my life. The spiritual energy of the group keeps me coming back again and again.”
GRC first got involved with BoMF in spring 2011, and the two groups have since developed a close and lasting relationship.
Georgetown students and BoMF members have a quick team meeting before the run begins. Everyone then sets off for a quick walk or run before returning to the starting line for a wealth of high-fives, according to Perreault.
“Georgetown students bring a lot of energy, a lot of excitement,” Perreault said. “They also bring youthful perspectives.”
Jane Doherty (CAS ’23), service and outreach chair for GRC, said witnessing one member run with BoMF for the first time ever in the fall of 2021 was an inspiring moment.
“The high-five chains at the end of that run were crazy,” Doherty said in an interview with The Hoya. “Like high school cheerleader energy coming from 60-plus-year-old-men just being so excited about having done something like that.”
Running countless miles with BoMF members has allowed Georgetown students in GRC to bond with people they might have never gotten the chance to know, Doherty said, including a run where she connected with a member over a mutual love of poetry.
“We had this lovely back-and-forth of sharing poems,” Doherty said. “I feel like it just expedites getting close with people when you’re in pain or out of your comfort zone trying something new.”
When members graduate from BoMF, they participate in a biannual graduation ceremony. Perreault said that it has been special when the quietest members of BoMF speak about how much the program changed their lives.
“That’s just amazing when you have no idea if somebody is getting anything out of the program, and then they suddenly start saying it’s moved their lives,” Perreault added.
Helping Others Get Back on Their Feet
BoMF hosts morning runs three times a week beginning between 5:20 a.m. and 6 a.m in Washington, D.C.
Valerie Blaemire, development director for the mid-Atlantic region of BoMF, which includes chapters in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, said running is only one aspect of the opportunities BoMF provides its members.
“Once members show up for a while, they get access to resources such as one-on-one mentorship, financial empowerment courses, workshops and financial aid,” Blaemire said in an interview with The Hoya.
“Members get gear to ensure they have the appropriate clothes for walking and running,” Blaemire added. “It’s really a great opportunity for folks who are in this transitional time of their life to get out there and get the support you may not typically get in a facility.”
Blaemire said members are considered alumni when they have achieved meaningful employment and housing.
“Once you are an alumni member, you are always welcome back. You are also encouraged to continue to attend workshops and anything else that is going to continue to make you self-sustainable,” Blaemire said.
Perreault said that Team Capitol Hill meets on Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:45 a.m. at the Capitol, and they run around some of D.C.’s most well-known landmarks.
“We’re running in the nation’s capital. We do loops around the Capitol. We run across the Mall, we run around the White House. There is a large amount of team spirit,” Perreault said.
Perreault said morning runs in the past have included up to 20 members, but this number has declined because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perreault said he hopes membership will rise in the coming years.
Team Capitol Hill did not fully resume runs until the winter of 2022. Many past BoMF members had graduated from the homeless facilities, making it harder to recruit new members, according to Perreault.
“We’re still suffering the consequences of COVID because we used to rely on having members at the facility bring out new members,” Perreault said. “So that’s one of the reasons why our numbers have gotten a bit low lately.”
The Impact on Georgetown
GRC runners return to BoMF each week for the friendships they’ve made, Doherty said.
“I genuinely consider many of them friends,” Doherty said. “They know a lot of stuff about me, and I know a lot of stuff about them. I get excited to see them each week and I hope that is reciprocated.”
Sarah Loew (SOH ’23), former service and outreach chair for GRC from 2021 to 2022, said she values the connections and community facilitated by BoMF.
“It can be really inspiring to see people be like ‘I got really down in life, and I got to a bad place, but here are all the things I’m doing to work on myself right now, and here are all the ways I’ve acknowledged that I’ve had a problem, and I’m trying to get better,’” Loew said in an interview with The Hoya.
Loew said she also credits the stability and routine of BoMF as being the driving motivation for committing to the program.
“Once you get there and experience it a few times, it’s enough motivation to keep getting up and coming back,” Loew said. “But it is hard to make that first jump and wake up at five in the morning.”
Ava Wasson (SFS ’24), president of GRC, said that GRC also helped to raise funds through a bake sale last year for BoMF and other organizations such as Girls on the Run, a nonprofit organization that works to inspire young girls through running. Wasson sees these funding opportunities as ways to give back to others while acknowledging the privilege of many Georgetown students.
“We come from a very fortunate place to have a lot of resources, experience and support when running, and I think it’s nice to give that to people who don’t have the same community,” Wasson said in an interview with The Hoya.
GRC also meets every Sunday through Friday at 5:00 p.m. at the John Carroll statue for group runs. The neighborhood exploration done through runs is a great step in bursting the bubble that often consumes Georgetown students, according to Wasson.
“The fact that we have all these different routes going into different neighborhoods definitely helps people to break outside of the bubble,” Wasson said. “I also really love doing stuff like gelato runs because then you get to actually spend time in another neighborhood too.”
What defines the experience of the BoMF program is the ability to not only see outside the Georgetown bubble but to interact with those that are outside of it, Loew said.
“It’s one of the biggest ways I’ve gotten to just connect with a completely different aspect of the D.C. community,” Loew said. “I think a lot of other ways you break out have more to do with seeing parts of the city than interacting with the people in them.”
“It’s always a nice way to start the morning just to talk to someone from a completely different background, from completely different life experiences, and hear what’s brought them here,” Loew added.
Connecting with BoMF members can offer new views from outside of just the Georgetown neighborhood, especially for college students who come from areas outside of the District, Loew said.
“You get to talk to a lot of people who have lived in D.C. their whole lives and have a completely different perspective on living in D.C. and what the city is like than you do,” Loew said.
BoMF started with the goal to help people navigate the difficult experience of homelessness and get back on their feet, but it has also achieved the mission of inspiring volunteers, according to Bata.
“BoMF has reminded me to stay optimistic,” Bata said. “All of the participants in the program have made it through hard times in different ways, and coming to BoMF is only one of many ways they are working to meet their personal goals.”
It can be difficult to feel an impactful presence outside a gated campus community, but Georgetown clubs like GRC are working to make their presence felt.
“I am so glad that GRC has the infrastructure to foster these connections and have the weekly recurring time carved out in those mornings to run and chat and walk,” Doherty said. “It definitely helps to increase connections with the larger D.C. community.”