At 4:40 a.m., Paramount employee Kevin Chalk’s alarm goes off. He puts on running clothes and sneakers and is out the door in 30 minutes. He’s on his way to Los Angeles’s infamous skid row.
It’s certainly an odd choice for a morning jog. But Chalk is a volunteer at Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that combats homelessness through the power of running, community support and essential employment and housing resources.
Chalk’s morning itinerary is precise and consistent, much like the training regimen of a seasoned athlete. By 5:25, Chalk is driving past makeshift tents in the impoverished neighborhood. Skid row has the highest concentration of homelessness in the nation—in just one square mile, over 2,000 people live in squalor.
Chalk steps out of his car and is struck by the putrid odor of synthetic marijuana, or spice. Spice is a cheap (albeit potentially lethal) high, making homeless residents an easy target for dealers. The toxic stench grows stronger as Chalk walks towards the Mission. He weaves in between tarps draped over fences, derelict buildings and throngs of families and neighbors huddled beneath threadbare blankets.
Rap music blasts from set of speakers in one tent, while 70s soul blares from a car radio. It’s barely dawn. There are men, women, and children of all ages mingling in the streets amidst rats and tumbleweeds of trash.
Chalk recalls arriving at 5:20 a.m. on his first day, back in September 2015.
He emerged from his car feeling excited yet wary. He experienced the sensory overload of skid row for the first time as he made laps around the block, observing carnage that resembled a refugee camp in a war-torn nation.
Then, Chalk found his team.
His team consists of 10 to15 men in various states of homelessness. Some are living at the Mission, some are living in halfway houses or other temporary housing arrangements. (While the Union Rescue Mission’s chapter of BOMF is open to men only, the nation-wide organization supports women, as well.)
“They made me feel welcome right away,” said Chalk. “[Union Rescue Mission] is a place of hope, and the members don’t show up looking or feeling desperate. They are determined.”
Back on My Feet gives these people a chance at independence via financial support and job placement. But the nonprofit wants something in return—dedication.
Members must attend at least 90 percent of the early morning runs, three times each week for one month. If they accomplish this, they move on to “Next Steps,” a portion of the program where members can write their own proposals for grants, and attend educational employment training.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, Chalk takes attendance and supervises as one of the members leads the group through a warm-up of jumping jacks and stretching. It’s 5:34 a.m. Three minutes later, Chalk gathers his team members and fellow volunteers for a huddle. They recite the Serenity Prayer. Finally, they cheer:
“Who are we?”
“Back on My Feet!”
“How long are we going to run?”
“Running has been transformational for me,” said Chalk. At Paramount, Chalk is director of finance planning and analysis. It’s a fast-paced job, ideal for a man whose life is anything but sedentary.
Chalk ran his first 10K at age 7, along with his father. He hasn’t slowed down since. Today, Chalk competes in long-distance races—anything from 10Ks to grueling, 50-plus mile “ultra” marathons. He finished the New York Marathon in 2016 in the impressive time of 3:09:45. He aims to cross the finish line in under three hours at the Boston Marathon in April.
But for Chalk, running is about more than the time on his stopwatch. He finds clarity on long runs through Los Angeles’s serene, shady forests and craggy, dusty hills.
“It’s a morning dose of perspective,” said Chalk. He arrives at Paramount at 9 a.m., revitalized and prepared for his workday.
Chalk realized on one of these morning runs that he wanted to use his passion to help others. “I wanted to volunteer for something related to running.” He discovered Back on My Feet.
Over the past year and a half, Chalk has watched team members fulfill monumental achievements.
Most of these men arrive in some degree of poor health. They’re addicted to drugs or smoke cigarettes. They live where rodents scurry about the streets, and human excrement mixes with rain when it storms. They get sick often, and don’t have proper healthcare.
Volunteers such as Chalk ensure these men are able to run at their own pace.
“We have a lot of members that have limited running experience,” said Chalk. “[I let] them know it is okay to walk, or cut the run short if they have to.”
The weekday runs are about three to five miles. They run past the Staples Center, Mariachi Plaza, Chinatown, Los Angeles Arts District, various parks and ponds, and over and under the bridges where Grease was filmed.
It’s a taste of life outside of skid row, where culture and nature flourish. Still, running is challenging—especially if you’re entrenched in poverty, disease, and addiction.
Chalk keeps things upbeat on these runs. They rarely talk about their lives before coming to the Mission; rather, they plan for upcoming races and discuss goals.
Team members exhibit tremendous endurance—in running, and in life. A former teammate named Tan makes Chalk’s voice swell with pride.
“Tan was once of the first members of Back on My Feet, Los Angeles, and graduated the program before my arrival,” explained Chalk. Tan received grant money from BOMF, and used it to attend truck driving school, eventually getting a job as a long-haul truck driver in the Midwest.
“Unfortunately, Los Angeles-based truck driving schools do not prepare you for icy roads,” said Chalk. Tan got into a few accidents and lost his job as a truck driver. But he didn’t give up on life.
“He came back to the Mission and immediately started running with us as an alumni member,” said Chalk. “On one of our Sunday long runs, the idea of Tan becoming a city bus driver came up. Tan has an infectious personality and would be perfect for the job. He decided to go for it. He went to the job training and was hired. He even bought a used car while living at the mission so he could get to his different bus routes.”
Tan graduated once again, and no longer runs with Chalk’s group. However, members see him on the Los Angeles city bus all the time.
There’s the 40-year-old smoker who could barely walk a mile when he started. “Every run I would just encourage him to run a little longer than the last,” said Chalk. After a couple months, he ran his first 10K and cried at the finish line.
There’s the man whose son waited quietly for his father to finish the end of a race, and ran the last 100 yards with him, crossing the finish line together.
There are times when the members are the ones encouraging Chalk.
In March 2016, they greeted Chalk at the 24-mile mark of the Los Angeles Marathon and helped him finish strong—beating his personal record, in fact.
And at the Lake Sonoma 50-mile Ultra Marathon a month later, they kept Chalk from quitting when he started to lose momentum at the 20-mile mark.
“What got me to the finish line was my team,” said Chalk. “They knew I was running. I would show up the next week with either a story of why I quit, or why I finished. I knew which story I wanted to tell them.”
Aside from volunteering, Chalk is a member of Back on My Feet’s Los Angeles chapter advisory board, a role which requires fundraising and outreach.
Chalk, who has worked nearly every Viacommunity Day since starting with the company in 2008, knows a bit about corporate philanthropy. With help from fellow employees who share the Viacommunity spirit, Chalk uses our company’s prolific resources to help Back on My Feet. In the fall of 2016, he organized a shoe drive, collecting gently-worn sneakers from boxes placed across the Paramount lot. By December, employees filled 15 boxes with shoes. He’s attended a leadership seminar courtesy of Paramount, which has allowed him to give further guidance as a lead volunteer and member of the advisory committee.
Team members are grateful for Viacom and Paramount’s support, and impressed by the nature of Chalk’s work. Many are major fans of our content—whether it’s BET, MTV, Nickelodeon, or Paramount movies. Tan, for example, is obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants.
“Running is simple yet so powerful,” said Chalk. “Fitness breeds confidence. Being part of a team builds accountability, which transfers to work, family, and school. In a few months someone with no real running experience and little fitness can run a 5K and get a medal.”
Life is a marathon, not a sprint, or so the saying goes. Six members of Union Rescue Mission will run the Los Angeles Marathon on March 19.
Even if these men stop running after the 30-day trial period, Chalk says many continue to reach their personal goals. One member aspired to be a chef while he was living in the Mission. Back on My Feet offered this man the resources necessary to attend culinary school. Now, he works at a high-end Japanese restaurant.
“We tend to think of homeless as other, or of ‘the homeless problem,’” said Chalk, “But they’re individuals just like us.”
There are roughly 82,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. These are the people you don’t always see.
In a city of wealth and glamour, sun-kissed sand, ocean bluffs and surf shops, there are some who struggle to survive with nothing at all.
Yet Chalk is making sure they have something. He teaches his team about taking things one day at a time.
First, they stretch.
Then, they run.
Soon, they’re back on their feet.