If there is one thing Mishka Vertin has learned it’s that the sport of running has a unique way of bringing people together.
A social worker by trade, the Minnesota native and marathoner first began to fully grasp this fact while serving as program director for the New York City chapter of Back on My Feet, an organization that uses running as a vehicle to combat homelessness.
When Vertin and her partner, Michael Jurasits, moved from the Big Apple to Minneapolis, the pair envisioned creating a similar program with a distinct emphasis on community building. In partnership with Catholic Charities Higher Ground in Minneapolis, Mile in My Shoes was established in 2014 with an initial team of eight volunteer runners.
Now in its fourth year, Mile in My Shoes has teams at the Higher Ground shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Residential Re-entry Center operated by Volunteers of America Minnesota, and Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women, all of which are focused on getting people who are experiencing housing instability and other challenges to become lifelong runners. To date, the program has recruited hundreds of team members and volunteer run mentors to hit the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul two mornings a week to enjoy some fresh air and camaraderie.
In a recent conversation, Vertin spoke about the ways she has seen running prompt powerful connections and growth in both her own life and in the lives of the people she works and trains with. Here are edited excerpts:
On the program’s impact on participants
We have so many stories — people who have lost 70 pounds and were able to stop taking their diabetes medication, and folks who have been able go off blood pressure medications or even anti-depressants because of the benefits of running. But I think one of the biggest things is the way that running changes someone’s self-perception of and their self-worth.
On the ways Mile in My Shoes connects people
When you’re living in a homeless shelter, all the people you’re interacting with on a daily basis are either other people in similar situations or social workers and case managers who are supporting you and constantly asking about your goals and your next steps. It’s all focused on the fact that you are in this situation of being homeless. One of the things we’ve heard from our members is that it’s so nice for them to come out for a run and just talk to people about normal things. We had one member say that for him, the team is a reminder of what his life used to be like and what it could be like again. For our run mentors — our volunteers — they often see running as something unique they can offer. They might not have experience interacting with this population, but they know about running and feel that it’s something they can contribute. We often live in our own bubbles, and this is an intentional way to get out and build meaningful relationships with people who are different from ourselves.
On the support from the local community
One of reasons we have opened new teams is because so many people have heard about us and so many volunteers have come to run. We try to keep the teams to one-to-one, so one run mentor to one resident, because we find that’s when people have the most meaningful experiences. As far as donations go, we’ve been very lucky to get donations from all sorts of places, primarily through Mill City Running connecting us with different shoe companies, who often have demo shoes they are willing to give us. We aim to give every resident who joins us a set of new gear for running.
On the power of running
Running allows you to think, process and relax. It gives you the opportunity to connect to other people. One of our mottos is ‘No one runs alone.’ It’s also a coping mechanism and something that can help you feel good about yourself, which is especially important for people who are going through difficult periods in their lives. For our mentors, many are simply looking for a way to do something meaningful and to make their running about something more. This has been a really natural way for people to do that.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.