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Hesed House runners make strides toward  more positive future

'Life is challenge so is running' said Rickey Archie Plano center first meeting newly formed Crossover running group Hesed House

"Life is a challenge and so is running," said Rickey Archie of Plano, center, at the first meeting of the newly formed Crossover running group at Hesed House in Aurora on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Archie was at Hesed for over a year before moving out but said the support he got from the group was a big help. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Sound body, sound mind

It’s no surprise that a simple physical activity like running can change a person’s state of mind, said Paul Carpenter, head of Northern Illinois University’s School of Kinesiology.

“In this case, running has given them a sense of purpose,” he said of the Hesed House runners. “It has changed their feelings of self worth.”

Runners set goals, and achieving those goals makes the runner feel successful, he said.

There’s a physiological response, too.

“Running releases endorphins and other neurochemicals in the brain” that contribute to a more positive perspective on life, Carpenter said.

The idea of getting homeless people involved in an activity isn’t new. Street Soccer USA, a 20-city network of soccer teams with homeless players, was founded in 2006 as the United States partner of the Homeless World Cup.

Engaging in an activity with other people, like a team sport or running club, gets participants working together toward a common goal.

“It brings them together and gives a sense of unity and support,” Carpenter said.

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Updated: September 27, 2012 10:56AM

It started with a pair of shoes.

Four months ago, Amy and Curtis Nelson lured Hesed House residents out of bed and into the early morning sun with a simple request: You come run with us, and a brand new pair of shoes will be yours for the taking.

The offer was enough to get Tanesha Walker up at 6:45 a.m., and dozens of other residents followed.

Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, friends, foes and strangers who populate the Aurora homeless shelter all showed up in May with their eyes on the colorful running shoes.

“I needed new shoes because my feet hurt,” Walker said of her initial reason for joining the Hesed House Crossover Running team. “It has become so much more than that.”

The running shoes came as donations from Aurora University and the Naperville Running Company.

The idea for the Crossover Running team came from the newlywed Nelsons, who believe the morning workouts build self-esteem and help the down-on-their-luck Hesed House residents raise their expectations of themselves.

Three days a week, the Hesed House runners pray, stretch, and then walk, jog, or run along the nearby Gilman Trail.

Walker, 34, had never run a race in her life before meeting the Nelsons — nor was it something she ever wanted to do. But this month, Walker and 21 other PADS and Transitional Living Center residents proved to themselves that the mind and body are capable of amazing things.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for since day one,” Curtis Nelson told the Hesed residents as they lined up at Blackberry Farm in Aurora to run their first 5K. “I’m so proud of you guys for making this commitment.”

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday since May, rain or shine, Walker now rises with a purpose.

“Running gives me peace of mind, and gets my thoughts together for the day,” she said.

After losing her children to DCFS, and her home, Walker needed some stability in her life. She found that, she said, on the Crossover team. “I haven’t missed a day yet.”

Walker’s husband, Kenneth, has seen the positive changes running has brought about in his wife.

“I’ve seen her have a lot more stamina,” he said from the sidelines as he cheered participants on. “And she has a lot better attitude.”

Walker is enrolled at Waubonsee Community College where she is studying computer software development, and hopes to buy a home soon and reunite with her children.

“I’m a regular person,” she told Amy Nelson after she joined the team. “I fell down, but I am getting up. Now I know my worth.”

Tasha Young and her five children found their way to Hesed House following a string of bad luck. They moved into the shelter’s Transitional Living Center last November, a day after her birthday.

“I’ve made some bad choices,” she admitted.

But, thanks to her newfound running routine, that’s all starting to change. As she crossed the finish line at the 5K, Young broke down in tears.

“Thank you. That’s all I can say,” she said, hugging a volunteer. “I started something and I completed it. You supported me from day one.”

Young started running with the Nelsons to get into shape, she said, but her motives have since changed.

“Now I know I can complete other things. I’m so proud of myself, I can’t believe I did this.”

Same goes for Lee Stone, who found himself homeless following a divorce. He showed up at Hesed House just over a month ago, and started running a week after he arrived.

“Running has helped build my confidence, get me out of bed, and start doing stuff again,” he said as he prepared for the race. “We motivate each other. We push each other. They are like a second family to me.”

Despite a groin injury, Stone smoked his competitors in the Crossover 5K. He crossed the finish line exhausted, but proud.

“I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” he said. “I’m definitely doing this again.”

The medal he wore around his neck seemed to glow.

“My kids are going to love this,” he said during the post party celebration. “Daddy won a medal.”

That sentiment radiated throughout the group of runners, who all crossed the finish line with smiles on their faces and pride in their hearts.

“Life is a race,” Curtis Nelson said. “We go through different obstacles and different challenges. You may want to quit, but you have to endure toward the finish line.”

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