Long-distance running to alleviate emotional pain and provide a sense of discipline and accomplishment led Meredith Dolhare to envision the idea of marathon training for people who are affected by homelessness. Dolhare founded RunningWorks in 2012 with the goal of reaching out to those affected by homelessness in order to encourage them to discover long-distance running.
According to Dolhare, who remains the executive director of RunningWorks, the organization started at a day shelter in Charlotte, North Carolina. In those days, she would recruit people who were standing in line to receive services for a run, followed by a life skill. At first, they would say no. However, as she mentioned the possibility of earning new shoes or socks, people started attending. Dolhare stated, “Generally, if people came more than three times, it was a sign that they would keep coming back for more runs and participating in the fellowship that followed.” Soon after, the program started to train the runners for marathons, and even had one team member complete a 50K race with Dolhare.
In 2017, they moved into their own 1,500-square-foot headquarters. In that facility, they provide runners with toiletries, clothes, computers, charging stations for cell phones and, most important, camaraderie.
Since the organization started, it has worked with more than 2,000 people in the community by providing various program options. Marketing Manager, Grant and Housing Specialist Michaela Duckett elaborated that the programs focus on a variety of topics from anger management to goal-setting to perseverance. She added, “We focus on skills that can be accrued through sports. For example, it takes dedication and willpower to train for and complete a race. Those same skills can be applied to everyday life situations such as looking for a job or dealing with a difficult boss.”
Dolhare mentioned that the organization often takes the runners out for sit-down meals to bond as a team and promote socialization. She added that every Wednesday night they have family-style dinners, which are attended by up to 20 people. She said that people like to come for the dinners because they promote a sense of trust.
In order to add consistency to the program, they created a schedule in which Tuesdays and Fridays are designated as running days and are always followed by a life skill to maintain the overall goal of RunningWorks: self-improvement. The organization continues to provide earned incentives, such as bus passes and running gear, to encourage runners to return. The organization continues to grow as people bring their friends to be a part of RunningWorks.
“Many of our participants learn about the programs through word of mouth from others who have been involved,” Duckett said. Additionally, she added that they offer multiple programs throughout the week. “We have a total of six programs at five sites in the Carolinas, including a youth program for children.”
According to Matthew Sharp, chief operating officer of the organization, RunningWorks obtains funds through various sources. They are a charitable beneficiary for more than 20 races in the community, which includes marathons as well as other races. Sharp added that the races attract many who are affected by homelessness, some who run and some who volunteer. The volunteers also consist of people from the community who are not affected by homelessness. In that sense, it’s a great way for everyone to interact and work together. It also helps to challenge the stigma associated with homelessness.
Dolhare elaborated that every fall, they organize a fundraiser in the form of a fashion show called “Metamorphosis,” in which they partner with designer Luis Machicao. For the show, models walk down the runway with members of the RunningWorks team to showcase styles created by Machicao. According to Dolhare, 100 percent of the proceeds from the gala are used for programs and services at RunningWorks.
They also participate in the Giving Tuesday campaign, which occurs right after Thanksgiving. “That is one of the biggest days of collecting donations for nonprofit organizations, and Charlotte is always one of the top cities in the country for giving on those days,” said Dolhare.
Sharp added that the organization also sustains itself because of individual donations, which sometimes exceed $2000. Additionally, they apply for grants and corporate sponsorships and create collaborations with other nonprofits and businesses.
Sharp has been a part of the organization for over a year. According to him, a milestone for the organization is that they provide direct access to mental health services to all the team members, which is a big barrier to obtaining and retaining jobs and housing. Another milestone has been in housing. In the past six months, they have provided supportive housing to over 25 people. “This is important because, while running and physical wellness is great for the homeless, they need overall stability,” said Sharp.
According to Duckett, one of the biggest challenges for the organization is helping the public to understand that they are much more than just a running group for the homeless. “We are more like a family, and we help our team find stability in all areas of their life.”
“Our vision is to eradicate homelessness. This is an obtainable goal. However, there are no handouts. Each team member who receives supportive services from us is working hard to keep up with his or her end of the bargain as well,” said Dolhare.
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