As the sun rose, shining warm upon the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the quiet stillness of a crisp, cool July morning was quickly overcome by hundreds of eager runners gearing up for the last leg of a 24-hour challenge that would intimidate even the most advanced athletes. From 10 a.m. Saturday morning through 10 a.m. Sunday morning, Back on My Feet (BoMF) Philadelphia’s In24 event challenged participants to an Ultra-Marathon, a relay challenge, Midnight Madness 8.4 mile run and a finale 5K.
Just before the 5K began, I caught up with Kelsey Nawalinski, a coordinator in Penn Medicine’s Neurosurgery Clinical Research division, to learn how she helps BoMF in its mission to empower those experiencing homelessness through running. The hope is that this exercise boosts participant’s self- esteem and becomes coupled with opportunities for employment and independent living.
Nawlinski started volunteering with BoMF last fall, after encouragement from Mia Spinelli, a Penn School of Nursing student and former research assistant in Neurosurgery who also served as a BoMF team leader.
At Penn, Nawalinski’s demanding role includes supporting tissue banking protocols and ICU protocols, including IRB regulatory oversight, picking up tissue from the OR, and consenting patients, but often her day starts well before that begins.
Starting last October, Nawalinski’s day started at 5:30 a.m. three times a week, with a two-to-four mile run with her BoMF group. After a couple months, Nawalinski hit the ground running, taking on a team leader role in January.
Getting consistent participation from everyone in her group so early in the morning can be tough, but Nawalinski is encouraged by the enthusiasm thus far.
Much of that comes from Nawalinski’s infectious energy and the benefits of participating. Those in the group residing in shelters and other facilities aim to commit to the training for 30 days. If they come out at 5:30 a.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and maintain 90 percent attendance during that trial period, they can qualify for job training, assistance with finding long-term housing, and other important services.
“We have a really solid attendance from our group,” Nawalinski said.
As team leader, Nawalinski tracks participant’s mileage and keeps them motivated in every mile. Sometimes that includes bridging new connections among group members. Finding these similarities stimulates bonding and builds peer support along the way.
“If you take someone at face value, you’re not going to find these valuable things,” said Nawalinski.
Volunteering gives Nawalinski perspective and focus that extends into her actions outside her work with BoMF.
“I’ve never left a run having regretted it,” said Nawalinski. “Sometimes I have that polar swing in the morning, first ‘Ah, this is a bad idea,’ and then always ‘This is the best way to start the day’.”
It’s not about her personal record, she said, but always about those around her getting one step closer to getting back on their feet.
Photo caption: Kelsey Nawalinski with Brigid Bleaken, Reginald, and Greg of BoMF