May 19, 2014

Helping Those Experiencing Homelessness

Southwestern swimming alumna Melissa Nicewarner Daly is helping people who are experiencing homelessness get back on their feet – literally.

The 2003 Southwestern graduate is executive director of the Austin chapter of Back on My Feet, a non-profit organization that uses running to help those experiencing homelessness move forward with their lives.

Back on My Feet was founded in Philadelphia in 2007 by Anne Mahlum, who would run by the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission every morning and trade jokes with the men who lived there.

"There was this kind of banter that would go back and forth and so finally she thought, 'I'm the only one getting anything out of this. I know the positive effect running has had on my life, and I want to share that with them." Daly said. "So she had this idea."

Mahlum outfitted the men at the shelter with new tracksuits and shoes and asked them to run with her. To everyone's surprise, they did.

Today, Back on My Feet is in 10 different cities, and has helped 743 members find employment and 519 members find housing. Each new Member must meet certain requirements, and be residing in a homeless shelter. If they demonstrate 90 percent attendance during their first 30 days of running, they'll be moved on to what's called "Next Steps," where Back on My Feet collaborates with businesses in the community to help members find employment. This includes mock interviews, financial tutoring, and counseling on how to appropriately address a criminal history during an interview.

Businesses in Austin that have partnered with the organization include Accenture, AT&T, Pioneer Bank, Whole Foods and White Lodge.

"The end result is employment and housing, but really we're creating hope within our group of Members," Daly said. "We're changing the way they see themselves. We place very high expectations on our Members and it's as if they've been waiting all along for someone to expect great things from them."

Back on My Feet expects its participants to show up on time and with a good attitude three times a week at 5:30 in the morning. In Austin there are two different teams, and their workouts will vary. For those just beginning, they start by running a single mile.

"We have some members who walk and jog," Daly said. "Everyone's at different places, and it's very inclusive, but we also have some pretty serious athletes in our groups."

Daly runs with a team once a week, and although she once preferred swimming and road biking (she was a varsity swimmer at Southwestern), her participation with Back on My Feet gave her a new respect for running.

"There aren't many things that I get up for at 5:30 in the morning but as I'm laying in bed at 4:30 there isn't even the thought that I don't want to do it because it's so empowering to see our Members really pushing and committing to our program," Daly said. "Running is such a metaphor for what we're doing because you can't cheat running. You can't run a mile unless you run every single step, so it's just like their journey with our program."

Daly majored in communication studies at Southwestern and held jobs in several fields before deciding that her true passion was for work in the nonprofit sector. Before joining Back on My Feet in 2013, she helped Community Impactnewspaper launch a new edition in Hays County.

"I love starting things," Daly said. "I think working for Community Impact showed me that I had what it took to go into a new community with a new product and really make it successful."

But as much as she enjoyed her time there, it made her eager to become more directly involved with the community, and she decided to find a way back into the nonprofit sector.

"Working for a news organization, you're disseminating the news and you're trusting the reader to do good things with the news you're giving them," Daly said. "You want them to engage in your community and you're really just a vehicle for that. I wanted to have a more active hand in things that were happening."

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