“Nothing of any consequence happens unless people get behind an idea. It begins with an individual and they share the idea with more individuals—and eventually it becomes a movement.”
There are pivotal times in all of our lives when things are about to change forever. Sometimes we are aware of the cosmic shift; sometimes we are not—it happens nonetheless and there is no return to normalcy.
In the fall of 2008, a dear friend of mine who was paramount in pulling me from the depths of hell and turning my life around, asked me to do her a favor by hosting a table for 10 at a local homeless ministry’s True Blessings Luncheon. Already involved with a smattering of charitable organizations around town on the periphery, this is something I agreed to with glee knowing it would be an easy thing for me to accomplish. However, I did not want to simply show up at the luncheon without learning about the organization, so I attended a well-organized “Lunch and Learn” informational meeting at the Center.
As I listened to the meritorious Dale Mullennix, Executive Director of the Urban Ministry Center (UMC), I was fascinated by his passion and dedication to the Neighbors (men and women who are welcomed to the Center daily). He had me at “Thanks for coming.” I loved the village-like atmosphere of the grounds, and the incredible array of services offered ranging from laundry to mail to doctoral to mental health to art therapy and even gardening. Each and every question asked by an attendee was met with candor and enthusiasm, which got my brain spinning with how I could help. What services do I have to offer? What am I good at? What do I really have time for? Am I willing to commit, really commit? Therein lays the question that we all have to honestly answer. Eventually.
Maybe Dale Mullennix took a look at me two weeks prior to my first Ironman event squirming in my seat and knew to spend a while on StreetSoccer945, the first year-round soccer program for the homeless and impoverished in the United States; whatever the case, he wisely expounded on the phenomenal success of their ground-breaking effort, and I was hooked.
Before I could even stop myself, I asked, “Have you ever thought about starting a running program with the Neighbors?”
Uh-oh. Who said that? I don’t have time for this! I’m important. I have an Ironman to do in two weeks. Did you hear me? An Ironman. At that point, it consumed me and the world revolved around that one day in November like it was the birth of my first child. I had not quite adopted the concept of racing for good causes as a method of unselfishness. It was all about ME.
Dale’s answer has stayed with me for the past three plus years.
“Running? No. We don’t have a running program. But, we will never say no to anything a volunteer wants to spend his or her time doing here at the Center. We welcome you.”
Basically, knock yourself out—even if it sounds crazy—because we have an open door to anything constructive. I worshipped him and his attitude, and immediately understood the success of the Urban Ministry Center. I wanted some of his Kool-Aid, and I still do. He has inspired me to devote my energies entirely to those less fortunate in the way I know how.
At that point, I set about inviting people to the luncheon that first year who I thought would aid some aspect of the Center or my evil plan: a chiropractor, a physical therapist, three amazing runners, a good friend from Venezuela (language skills), and a pediatrician—plus two potential donors. All were inspired, and all three runners remember that day well because I capitalized on their emotion and asked them if they would be interested in coming downtown and starting a running group some day. It seemed so incredibly far-fetched and ludicrous, but I really thought I would do it right away. However, no one had ever heard of Back on My Feet in Philadelphia yet (this was 2008), and founder Anne Mahlum’s now years of success in taking runners from morning runs to Next Steps Training to being race ready to actual employment, housing and on to job-specific training/ education. I was a bit daunted to say the least.
Time passed. My “very important” Ironman came and went, so I signed up for three more the next year with no charitable connection. Something was missing, although I had yet to figure out what that might be. I did four more, but I came to believe that it was selfish and I needed to at least raise money for something. And so it began. Six more raced with a huge charitable connection. Now I’m okay, right? I was raising money and donating money and acting the fool; however, I was not actually getting involved myself. Hey! Here’s all the money I raised. Please have someone else get her hands dirty.
Throughout this period of frenetic racing, I maintained my table at the Urban Ministry Center’s True Blessings Luncheon as a tribute to my friend who go me healthy enough physically and mentally to do what I love. Each year, I invited many of the same people—including a notable female superstar who reminded me each and every time (up until this very October, 2011), “We still need to start that running group, Mer.”
Of course, I am speaking of my now partner and very close friend (and Timex Multisport Teammate) Kelly Fillnow (www.kellyfillnow.com). She was the most touched and adamant about making this a reality. Ironically, she is also one of the most amazing athletes and people I have ever encountered, and I cannot imagine doing this with anyone else. She was touched in the very same way I was by Dale. Without sounding too cliché, everything really does happen for a reason and in its own time. Within the past three years, both of us have raced across continents and set records that give us a collective name. Meaning, we have amassed the contacts necessary to set something like this in motion and make it a success. Had we tried it upon the inception of the idea, it might have fizzled and died for lack of bandwidth. We really did not know enough people between the two of us because we were both new to the racing scene. From this arena, we will compile volunteers, donors, fundraisers, sponsors, experts, and everything in between. The outpouring of support we have received just in the past month since our launch has been overwhelming. We are most grateful, humbled and even more emboldened.
All mankind—from every walk of life whether it be a street person or the bloke you see on your morning commute driving an Aston Martin—has more in common than we realize. Everyone, and I do mean every, single person, has a story. Most often, if you take the time to listen, these autobiographies are spellbinding and similar. We can all learn from each other, and we are not as different as one might think. Be attentive. The person to your left might be telling your story with a twist. Maybe one day that singular family member did not show up to help her out of a jam, and she has been sitting on this curb ever since. There but for the grace of God go I. If you’d like to know my history, just ask. It isn’t pretty.
If you manage to change the direction your life is headed, you usually succeed in changing the way you see yourself as a person. It sounds simple, but it is one of the most intimidating things in life to accomplish. Just the thought of it is paralyzing. Those that govern this fear are true heroes who can stand up and be proud to share their stories with others. Our vision is to create a running haven for these men and women, and we welcome their pasts. They can overcome anything one stride at a time.
If you have a dream to help people, make it a reality. These past several weeks have been the most rewarding of my life, and they have changed me for the better in ways unforeseen. I have learned to listen–really listen. I’m remembering names for the first time in my life because I hear the Neighbors when they speak to me. It all sounds so elementary, but these things leave an indelible mark, and make me think about the way I go about the rest of my day. Amen to that.