Volunteers walk and run with participants for up to 3 miles in downtown Chattanooga. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

No doubt that running has its health benefits, but it’s the psychological benefits-the increased emotional and mental well-being and confidence-that often hook runners.

A growing number of organizations are tapping into running, and particularly its positive side effects, as a way to help some of society’s most downtrodden: the homeless.

Homeless people are an isolated group affected by extreme factors that can include poverty, mental illness, lack of health care and affordable housing, domestic abuse, and addiction disorders. Running can offer homeless adults benefits that are both big and small-but it all counts, according to Robert Gustafson, who helped found the homeless running program, On My Own 2 Feet, through the Chattanooga Track Club in June.

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On Your Own 2 Feet outfits participants with gently used running gear. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

The group meets twice a week at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen on East 11th Street to encourage and support homeless people through running.

“The biggest goal we have is to eventually help get these people employment, housing and into being productive members of society,” Gustafson said. “However, there are different levels of helping, whether we get them to a place where they can get a job and house or just to a place of better health and feeling better about themselves.”

For Rita Fanning, who helped Gustafson start On Your Own 2 Feet, running teaches discipline that can carry over into daily life.

“If you get people to train twice a week, the discipline of training and the good feeling you get from running can channel into other positive lifestyle changes,” she said.

Each On Your Own 2 Feet participant is encouraged to go through a 5K training program that, upon completion, results in a new pair of running shoes, a monogrammed backpack and other goodies.

The first group of runners in the On Your Own 2 Feet program participated in the Chattanooga Fellowship of Christian Athletes 5K in August. Chad Varga, owner of Front Runner Athletics and director of the Chattanooga FCA 5K, donated new running shoes to participants who completed the training; and Alan Outlaw, owner of Fast Break Athletics, donated T-shirts to the cause.

Jeffrey placed third in his age group in the Chattanooga FCA 5K in August. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

One of the runners, Jeffrey, 31, began running with volunteers from On Your Own 2 Feet in June. He placed third in his age group at the Chattanooga FCA 5K, much to the group’s excitement.

“It was like this magical moment when we heard Jeffrey’s name announced as the winner,” Gustafson said. “It was so big for him to come in third place-he needed that confidence boost.”

While Jeffrey is excited about his win, he recognizes the value of running and the program as a whole.

“I’m excited to be in the program and get back into shape because I feel healthier and have a lot more energy,” he said. “And it’s good for me because it gets me out with a group.”

On Your Own 2 Feet meets on Monday and Thursday mornings through October at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. Volunteers set up a table on the patio to recruit participants and distribute snacks and gently used running gear to get each runner started. After stretching, volunteers run and walk with runners for up to 3 miles, weaving through downtown Chattanooga.

According to Gustafson, the core group each week can vary from five to eight runners.

“When we started this program, we thought we would be successful if we could help one person per year,” Gustafson said. “We have already exceeded that. One of our participants got a job, and we feel like we played a small part of that. In other cases, we are working to help others to stop smoking cigarettes. Sometimes it’s about baby steps.”

Each participant is encouraged to compete in a 5K race, such as the Chattanooga FCA 5K, which took place in August. (Photo: On Your Own 2 Feet)

On Your Own 2 Feet means something to everyone who participates. For some of the homeless runners, it’s a way to engage with people outside the isolation of homelessness, Gustafson said. For the volunteers, it’s a way to connect to other humans who could use some encouragement.

“Most days, I feel like we get a lot more out of this program than the participants do,” he said. “I like being able to recognize some of these people when I see them downtown, to talk and joke with them.”

Tyrone, 43, joined On Your Own 2 Feet in June, and he wears his monogrammed backpack while he runs.

“I’ve been running since they asked me, ‘Do you want to run?'” he said. “It’s good for me-I feel better, and they say I’m losing weight. The benefits are the shoes and the positive encouragement, and I have made friends who are much more positive than the people I’m usually around.”

On Your Own 2 Feet hopes to increase participation in the coming year, which will end in mid-October and start back in March.

“Ultimately, as the program grows, we want more people and more participation-more connections and mentoring and job opportunities,” Gustafson said.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities or to make a donation, visit the On Your Own 2 Feet website.

Jenni Veal enjoys exploring and adventuring in the great outdoors. Visit her travel website www.YourOutdoorFamily.com to learn more about outdoor family travel adventures in the United States. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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