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Program helps homeless get up and running; Gives job training to exercisers

Some homeless Americans are getting a running start on creating new lives.

The Back on My Feet program spurs them into instant action in nine cities with a simple plan: Go for a run at dawn.

Those who do it three times a week for a month are then offered job training, education -- and whatever else it takes "to get my life back," says Albert Davis, 20, a native of Alabama who lives in a Manhattan shelter.

"People tell me I have a beautiful voice, and I hope I can make money singing," says Davis, who became homeless when he aged out of the foster system that cared for him after his parents died.

For now, he'll learn computer skills to make a living.

On a nippy spring morning in Central Park, he joined about 50 runners plus volunteer mentors covering a mile to Times Square. Some breezed along, others struggled. But somehow, they all made it to the New York Marriott Marquis, where they met corporate sponsors for breakfast. The Marriott chain has employed dozens of formerly homeless people in its hotels.

"This is not a running club -- it's the beginning of a new, different life," a teary-eyed LaTonya Golden told the healthy breakfast gathering. She ended up homeless and penniless after losing her job in Detroit's auto industry, followed by her house and car, a few years ago.

"I had never run before in my life, so I had to focus on small things, like my breathing, and gradually I learned that the same principles that helped me as a runner could be applied to all the problems in my life."

Now, Golden works as an engineer at a Marriott hotel in Dallas -- one of the cities with a Back on My Feet chapter. The others are in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta and now, New York City.

The nonprofit was started five years ago in Philadelphia by Anne Mahlum, who turned to running as a teenager to help overcome the devastation of her parents' separation.

She speaks with the kind of intense energy that has attracted major sponsors to her cause, including the New York Road Runners organization, which hosts the famed annual marathon. Last year, competing runners raised more than $100,000 for Back on My Feet.

"I have watched the power of running at work in many ways," says Mary Wittenberg, the organization's president and CEO. "What brings me to tears is to watch their jubilation and excitement as they take their first steps into a better life."

Back on My Feet also has helped place members in jobs with companies like Enterprise and Bimbo Bakeries, in restaurants and call centers, or doing maintenance, plumbing, carpeting and security work.

Of 400 Back on My Feet participants across the country, about half have moved on to independent living. That's the hope of Jeff Stewart, 45, a resident of Manhattan's Bowery Mission that houses men.

When he heard about Back on My Feet, he said, "I jumped on it." The running will prepare him for getting up early for a job, he said, "so I think I'm going to enjoy getting fresh air every morning."