Lily Bui wanted to step outside her comfort zone during her freshman year of college. After bumping into someone waking up in her dorm at 4:30 a.m. to volunteer with Back on My Feet, Lily was hooked. Back on My Feet is an organization that connects volunteers with people experiencing homelessness by literally running alongside them throughout their journey toward independence. Though she didn’t initially consider herself “a runner,” Lily joined fellow Villanova students on Friday mornings at 5:30 a.m. to walk, jog and run with members of Philadelphia’s homeless population.
“It moved me in a lot of different ways,” said Bui. With little initial running experience, the program became a journey. “Everyone I met through Back on My Feet, volunteers and members, is really inspiring. I just kept going and kept talking to people. I kept learning about issues. I even became a runner along the way.”
Back on My Feet started in 2007 in Philadelphia and has since spread to 14 cities. “The whole premise is that people gain self-confidence and are empowered through running. It’s fun to see people go from walking a mile to running or jogging a few miles. But there is a whole range of running ability, some are walking. We always start with a circle up where everyone says their names, we go through a few ice breakers, and decide how long we want to run or walk,” said Bui.
Now a senior at Villanova, Bui recently had a summer internship with Back on My Feet, where she worked to maintain volunteer engagement throughout the pandemic. “In a normal world, we would be running. Volunteers from all over the city sign up to run early in the mornings Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Villanova students typically run on Fridays.”
The program aims to create a sense of community, rebuild confidence and promote healthy lifestyles through running. Making the resources available to run is also a priority. But beyond running, Back on My Feet provides further benefits, “After a month, members are enrolled in a next steps program with job and housing assistance. But after they secure housing and employment they're still supported as alumni of the program.”
But without the ability to foster an in-person community, Lily has faced challenges in adapting to a virtual volunteer program. She had to get creative to continue to engage students in the program. In fact, Bui and other students are still waking up early to serve members of the local homeless population.
“While we can't connect with the people experiencing homelessness during this pandemic, I figured we'd make it more educational and reflective—a service opportunity,” said Bui. “The best motivation has been people being so interested. It would be really hard to get up if it was just me. But to see consistently the whole group showing up on zoom to talk about really difficult issues in the morning is really gratifying. We talk a lot about race, class, gender and the privilege of running.”
One way they are still providing service virtually is through job searches. “Back on My Feet continues to provide support through housing assistance resources and workforce development coaching. As volunteers, we write up descriptions for jobs. We have to be very particular about what jobs we're trying to find. We have to make sure they're friendly towards returning citizens, we look for benefits in terms of healthcare and prioritize access in terms of transportation,” said Bui.
Bui’s experience with Back on My Feet has drastically impacted her time in college. With a double major in Biology and Peace and Justice, Back on My Feet has even inspired her to write a thesis regarding her work with the program. With an exciting future ahead, Bui plans to continue her involvement in Back on My Feet even after she graduates. “I want to continue volunteering wherever I end up. Medical school is next, so I am eager to find a program, or I can open up a new team in that city. I want to stay involved.”