Runner dedicated to making life better for homeless

by Kathy Blake

CHARLOTTE – The idea was conceived at a “Lunch and Learn” meeting at downtown Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center in 2008.

From left, RunningWorks volunteer Brett Engle, founder Meredith Dolhare, Jackie, secretary Pat Andrews and Benita pose for a photo. Dolhare has helped Jackie and Benita, both formerly homeless, find jobs and affordable housing. (Courtesy of Glenn Carroll Photography)

Meredith Dolhare, a local runner and accomplished Ironman triathlete, listened as Executive Director Dale Mullennix described the center’s services for the homeless.

Dolhare felt that tug, the one that says, “What do you have to offer?” And, more importantly, “Will you commit to it?”

Mullennix discussed the center’s art program, the gardening, the soccer. But, these were homeless people – about 500 seek the center’s help daily for food, laundry services, a hot shower – not Dolhare’s social circle.

“What do you have to offer?”

Without thinking, she blurted, “Have you ever thought about starting a running program?”

The concept stayed dormant until October 2011, when Dolhare’s friend and professional running partner Kelly Fillnow reminder her.

In April this year, the two founded RunningWorks, a program that meets Tuesdays and Fridays at the center. The “neighbors,” as the homeless are called, meet to run, but it has become much more.

“We are in the life-changing business, and for some people, this is a path to changing their life,” Mullennix said.

Fillnow participates in the twice-weekly runs, but Dolhare has adopted RunningWorks as her calling. She has applied for nonprofit status. She spends about 30 hours a week helping the neighbors with resumes, job searches and life skills. She drives them to appointments. She listens.

“The homeless are the forgotten people,” she said. “People think they don’t want to work, that they’re lazy. But homelessness is not the old guy under the bridge with a paper bag. They had one thing go wrong, and they just need someone to tug them in the right direction and keep them going.”

Each running session is followed by circle time, when the neighbors and volunteers talk about life, about feelings. They have a book study, they learn respect, they set goals. Rewards – a bus pass, a gift card – come from attendance and passing book quizzes.

Urban Ministry soccer instructor Pete Fink, left, and Troy run during the Huntersville Monster Dash 5K at Rural Hill.(Courtesy of Glenn Carroll Photography)

“They love feeling that ‘People care about me.’ ‘People listen to me,’” Mullennix said.

Local businesses help with donations of running attire and shoes. A bank is donating sweat-suits, for colder weather. Runners have sapphire blue and white T-shirts with the RunningWorks logo, for their treks through downtown.

On run days, anywhere from a dozen to 30 participants, from their 20s to their 60s, leave from the center in groups – walkers, those who mix running and walking, and some who have progressed to 5-milers. They go up Tryon Street, toward Johnson & Wales University, to Marshall Park, past the business suits and stoplights, not so much running away from something, but toward it.

“There are lives that are changing, and they’re changing together. It’s a marvel even to them,” Dolhare said.

Two neighbors in their early 20s, Victor and Angel, met on the streets and are dating. He lives in the men’s shelter, she in the women’s. Dolhare helps them sort through things. She’s seen two men, Dan and Harvey, become buddies. Each can run about 2 miles now. Harvey got his church to help with a Thanksgiving meal. Another, Dennis, who struggles with his weight, has followed Dolhare’s encouragement and can run almost 2 miles.

In October, a church paid for a limousine service’s bus to transport 31 neighbors to Huntersville for the Monster Dash 5K at Rural Hill. Neighbors manned an aid station for the Ramblin Rose half-marathon in Charlotte in September. In January, RunningWorks will take part in the Charlotte Running Club’s Winter Classic 8K.

“Homelessness is a characteristic, not a definition, of people’s lives,” Mullennix said. “Everybody expects us to do counseling, or drug treatment, which we do. But programs like RunningWorks help give a sense of normalcy to their lives. It’s a way of feeling, ‘Hey, I’m not just a homeless guy.’”

Dolhare had spinal reconstructive surgery in June, but will do a 100K in this month and a 135-mile run in Brazil in January.

“Basically, running non-stop at 26,000-feet elevation,” she said.

At 39, Dolhare said, with the support of her husband and sons, she has found her life’s calling.

“A lot of causes tug on your heart,” she said, “but the Urban Ministry Center, they had me from ‘hello.’”

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