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Back on my feet: A story of restoration and triumph

Friday - 6/28/2013, 7:59am  ET

Back On My Feet staff member Jaime Albarelli leads pre-race prayer. The local nonprofit works with those who are homeless, unemployed or both, using running as a motivational tool to help members get their lives back on track. (Courtesy Mike Shomaker)

Mike Shomaker, special to

WASHINGTON - Before Rachel Panay joined Back On My Feet, she was an alcoholic with a waning music career. And she certainly wasn't a runner. Yet at a quarter of six on a chilly morning, she's outside the N Street Women's Shelter dressed in a thick black coat, wool hat and gloves preparing for a run.

She raises her hands above her head languidly and kicks her feet out to shake off the tiredness. The city is serenely quiet and undisrupted. Street lamps partially illuminate dark shops and vacant office buildings at the intersection of 14th and N Streets, just off Logan Circle.

Six, including Panay, have come out this morning -- an impressive turnout considering the hour and uncomfortable nip in the air.

After some announcements about upcoming events and races, the group circles up -- putting an arm around one another like a football huddle -- to say the Serenity Prayer, a daily tradition.

Then they begin their pre-run warm up.

"One … two … three … four," they begin counting out jumping jacks in unison, all the way up to 25. They follow up with knee highs and quick torso rotations before going into a variety of synchronized stretches.

For the last nine months, Panay has been enrolled in Back On My Feet (BOMF), a national nonprofit that works with those homeless, unemployed or both, using running as a motivational tool to help those less fortunate get their lives back on track.

This morning's route is a 2.25-mile loop in the heart of downtown Washington, an impressive length considering some of the group has little or no experience distance running. But for Panay and the other women, it's more than just a 2-mile loop. They run with the hope of being able to turn their lives around and improve their situations.

The group kicks off towards Dupont Circle, chatting eagerly. The biting wind and sunless sky do little to diminish their motivation and vivacity. For Panay, running with BOMF for the last nine months has helped reestablish structure in her life.

"It forces me to get up and work out in the morning," Panay says between exaggerated breaths. The pace seems a bit faster than usual but she doesn't complain. "With my meeting schedule some days, it isn't possible to workout otherwise."

Due in part to BOMF's stringent requirements and expectations, including a stipulation that all members maintain a 90 percent attendance rate throughout the course of the program, Panay is out hitting the pavement before sunrise, two-to- three times a week.

To non-runners and new runners, that seems like a lot of running -- mainly because it is. The early mornings, the long distances, the stresses of racing, not to mention the sometimes extreme weather conditions, it's enough to deter anyone.

Like Panay, most of the BOMF members had little or no running experience going into the program. Some had never even run a mile. The idea of running in an organized race was at best, a foreign concept.

Founded in 2007 in Philadelphia, BOMF has rapidly expanded to 10 cities across the country. Using running as a common bond, it has built a nationwide community of individuals who encourage each other and share similar life goals. BOMF provides the tools and education to enable the less fortunate to find the determination to overcome life's challenges.

Panay knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges. Four years ago, her career as a singer slipped into the abyss as drug and alcohol addiction consumed her life.

A graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the Georgetown neighborhood and then the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Panay jumped into the music industry. She moved to New York City and began performing with big bands and touring across the country.

She released "Back To Love," a full-length compilation of dance mixes that achieved notable success around the nightclub circuit. Her burgeoning career was heading in the direction she had always hoped.

But with the territory came its pitfalls: drugs and an exorbitant amount of alcohol.

"At first, I barely drank. I was a music nerd in college and [people who drank] scared me. I wasn't a part of that. But after college, I sang with bands and my band mates drank. I discovered that a glass of wine made it fun … but I told myself that I didn't need it," Panay says.

She married her college sweetheart and continued to pursue her career. She was performing often, making connections, trying to get her name out. But the demands of the industry began to strain their relationship.

"I'd [regularly] get home late after gigs, maybe one or two in the morning," she says. "We were just on different schedules."

With her marriage in steady dissolution, Panay made the tough decision to pack up and leave New York for Miami to be closer to the thriving nightclub scene. In her mind, it was now or never. What began as a glass of wine before and after a gig quickly spiraled out of control.

"That's when I really started to drink … I was devastated about my marriage [ending]. He was my best friend, you know? Ten years we were together. I couldn't believe how dependant I had become," Panay says.

After what proved to be a disappointing stint down South, Panay found her way back to suburban McLean where she lived with her mother until she could save enough money to move downtown. She continued to sing with bands, and she continued to drink often.

Moving into the city a year and a half later was the beginning of the end.

"I was around a lot of drug users," Panay says, recalling her time living around the U Street Corridor neighborhood in Northwest D.C. "My housemates liked to have fun -- it's a different group of people. Everybody liked to party. I started dating a drug dealer, which was not good at all. I was drinking, doing drugs for free -- it was becoming unmanageable."

By January 2012, what semblance of normalcy and functionality Panay had struggled to maintain as a drug-using musician completely dissolved.

"I would get sober but it didn't last. I had a number of jobs lined up but I relapsed on my birthday." She moved out of her ex-boyfriend's apartment and lived on friends' couches.

Panay recalls it as a low point in her life and realized that she needed to get help.

She reached out for help and entered a rehab program. It was there she first heard about Back On My Feet.

"Once a quarter we'll go to AA meetings," says Bill Kuennen, BOMF program director for the D.C. office. He has worked with Panay and others like her since October of last year when he began working for BOMF. "There's a lot of promotion [of our program] going on in the shelters. Word of mouth is very popular."

The idea, according to Kuennen, is to provide a positive environment for those who need a boost of encouragement.

"It may sound cliché, but life is not easy. We're not out here to scare individuals -- we're a support system for them," Kuennen says. "We're here to help people overcome challenges."

Ashley Kilpatrick is BOMF'S regional executive director. She has spent a number of years working in shelters, trying to understand and address the complexities of homelessness. She agrees that word of mouth is one effective way to recruit new members. But that's not the only way.

"Word of mouth is popular. But in addition, local and national media coverage have been great sources for reaching new volunteers," she says.

An individual who shows interest must comply with BOMF's rules and regulations for entering the program.

"Members must live in one of [our] facilities for 30 days," Kilpatrick says. "Here in D.C., that's the Emery House, Boyer House, N Street Village, CSC [Clean and Sober] or the Blair House."

Once an individual maintains residency for one month, he or she is eligible to join, entering the first phase of the program called, "Next Steps," a month-long period in which each case is examined by a panel of BOMF staff.

Anybody is free to join, regardless of past. While BOMF does not target those with specific issues, roughly 90 percent of residential members have a history of substance abuse, according to Kilpatrick. So it is imperative to assess the enrollee's level of commitment.

All incoming residential members must sign a dedications contract, which is exactly what it sounds like: a written commitment to the program. In addition, they must fill out a self-evaluation survey and create a list of goals that they would like to achieve over the course of the program.

Then the running begins. Five houses, five locations, 5:45 a.m., sharp.

"Non-residential members," the term for those who volunteer with BOMF, help orchestrate the morning runs and serve as a major support system for the program enrollees. They come from a variety of backgrounds and professions and share a common passion for running and volunteering in their communities.

The non-residential members and BOMF staff meet with residential members at one of the five locations every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a run of varying distances, regardless of weather. According to Kilpatrick, following a communal stretch, they break off into groups dependant on skill level.

Each house has a 1-to 3-mile option, and a 3-to 5-mile option. For those who just want to walk, there's that too. In addition to the weekday runs, some of the members training for longer races, such as half or full marathons, run together on Saturday mornings.

For new residential members, the early mornings, the rigorous training schedule -- it's a complete lifestyle change. Many newcomers never owned a pair of running shoes prior to joining. The Mid-Atlantic's occasionally harsh winter weather demands more than a T-shirt and shorts.

BOMF Marketing and Communications Manager Jay Giller says the organization provides necessary gear to residential members. Through the "Run Give Run" initiative, BOMF sells gear in local stores (in the D.C. area they're partnered with Pacers) and collects a percentage of revenue, which is used to purchase shoes for members. Running gear is also donated by sponsors and private individuals.

On a cold and rainy afternoon near McPherson Square, Rachel Panay sits in a Starbucks sipping coffee as she prepares for her finance management workshop a few blocks away at the Bank of America building.

While running is an important component of the BOMF program, it is only one component. All BOMF members are expected to complete a number of courses as part of the curriculum. Courses -- sponsored by corporate supporters, like Bank of America and Accenture -- teach financial literacy, which touches on everything from opening a checking account to money management. Others focus on resume writing and developing interviewing skills.

"This one -- it's about credit. It's pretty basic but there are people in there who have never opened a bank account before," Panay says of today's workshop. "It's a good refresher and a positive [environment] to talk about money."

In late February, Panay made a significant breakthrough, landing a position at Wolf Trap working with local musicians. Though it's only part-time, it's a step in the right direction.

She seems optimistic about her future, a testament to the program's efficacy.

Homelessness and unemployment are growing problems in the District. According to The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, since 2008, homelessness has increased to 6.2 percent, or roughly 7,000 people.

The unemployment rate for D.C. residents hovers around 9 percent as of late 2012, according to the Department of Labor Statistics.

BOMF's near 50 percent success rate is a testament to its dedication to combating these issues. Compared to other programs that help resolve homelessness and unemployment for its enrollees, BOMF's ability to achieve that for nearly half of all residential members is impressive.

"Our success rate -- these are people who make it through the program and find housing, employment or both," Kuennen says.

BOMF offers a monetary incentive as extra motivation. Each enrollee is eligible for a $1,250 grant, which they may decide how to use. Those who stick with the program and complete the requirements have the ability to receive the full amount.

Kuennen says some put the money towards paying off bills, while others use it to buy clothes for interviews.

Giving grants is just one component of its model. BOMF's success can also be attributed to the qualitative measures each staff member takes. Everyone is equal. No one gets preferential treatment, regardless of background or skill level.

Runners, non-runners, those coming from wealth and those from a life on the streets -- it all begins with a single step, one day at a time.

"We're all just runners," Kuennen says. "We introduce ourselves with a hug -- it helps wipe away differences. At a race, you can't identify a homeless person from a doctor or other professional."

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, has worked with BOMF in the past. With more than 40 years in the field, he's seen initiatives that have worked and those that haven't. He supports BOMF's mission and believes it has a positive impact in the community.

"[We] did a training on substance abuse at one of the houses for some of the BOMF group. It's a good program -- a way for individuals to come together over something like running," Stoops says.

Stoops believes that success is measured by other means as well. A common trait among the homeless is poor health, due to inactivity and malnutrition. BOMF strives to teach those about the importance of a healthy diet coupled with regular exercise, such as running.

He recalls meeting a woman at a BOMF meeting recently who admitted that her blood pressure had lowered significantly because of the running. "I don't think they understand the health benefits [in running]. Food in shelters is not always nutritious."

At the BOMF pre-race pasta dinner the night before the Rock n' Roll Half and Full Marathon, Michael Copper sits at the elongated conference room table in BOMF's D.C. office, a second plate of lasagna and other complex carbohydrates before him.

Tomorrow, the BOMF graduate will run his fourth half marathon.

Between bites he flips through photos from past races on his smart phone, an extensive collection chronicling his races with BOMF.

"This is my first half in Indianapolis," he says proudly. He zooms in on a picture of a man who resembles Copper, running on a crowded street. "See, there's the mile 12 marker -- almost finished."

Copper joined BOMF in August 2011 in Indianapolis after a long struggle with alcoholism. Now two years sober, he thanks BOMF for driving him towards self- improvement.

"It motivated me to push myself. [BOMF] helped me regain self-esteem," Copper says.

Copper now considers himself a runner, as well.

"I wasn't much of a talker. I'd go out and just want it to be over with. Now I enjoy [running] -- it's more of a social activity."

Since graduating from BOMF, Copper is now employed, working for a commercial security company downtown. While some graduate the program and move on, many keep in touch and often run with the group.

Jaime Albarelli, member services manager for the D.C. office says that it is common for alumni to remain active in some capacity.

"Alumni definitely stick around once they complete the program. They are invited to all races and social events so there is usually a group at each event. If their work schedule permits, they usually continue participating in morning runs. I can think of eight off the top of my head that continue to run at least once a week with a team," Albarelli says.

Copper says he still maintains close ties with BOMF staff and runs with them as often as possible.

"I highly recommend and promote BOMF to anyone," he says confidently. "It changed my life for the better."

And it seems to be changing Panay's life for the better, as well.

When asked if BOMF has benefitted her, she smiles.

In the last few months, she feels that she's regained focus and has a better handle on life. She's currently in the last stage of the program and has been sober for over a year. Her passion for singing and performing keeps her motivated. She seems eager to get her music career back on track as soon as possible.

"Being around people in BOMF helped me remember the goodness there was to be had -- all the fun, normal, healthy, life-affirming things," Panay says.

In addition to sobriety, she now has a newfound love for running. She acknowledges that it helps keep her in shape but she really enjoys it too.

In March, she ran the St. Patrick's Day 8K and says it was her best race yet.

A now sober singer and runner with a job prospect on the horizon, Panay believes that she has a bright future ahead of her, thanks to the efforts of BOMF.

"One of the biggest things BOMF gave me was a window to a greater world that I missed."

Mike Shomaker is a writer based in Arlington, Va. In addition to freelancing, he helps run DC Music Live, a website dedicated to music news in the D.C. area. You can find other articles by Mike at and can follow him on Twitter @mikeshomaker.

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