Sarah Brewster is currently serving as a second year Jesuit Volunteer/AmeriCorps member in Portland, Oregon, as the Recreation Coordinator at the Volunteers of America (VoA) Men’s Residential Center (MRC).
When I first arrived at the Volunteers of America Men’s Residential Center, I could never have imagined what scheduling recreations like laser tag, pottery painting, and kayaking could hold for our clients. At the MRC, recreation is still considered treatment time; a time for clients to re-engage in activities, hobbies, and interests that they may have lost sight of in their addiction and/or never had the opportunity to explore because of life circumstances. Yet, to get a group of 20 or 30 people excited about the same thing can be a tough deal, especially when trying to get them to step into something new and unfamiliar. But I found solace and, at times, sanity in the recreation outings; they became rich opportunities to get to know the clients outside of a regular treatment setting.
In January, we had a small, but avid, group of runners in house. For these clients, running was becoming part of their treatment program and daily self-care. They started to log some serious miles, and one even took social passes to get in longer runs. I had started planning my own summer race schedule, and figured I would look into registering a few of the guys in some upcoming races. What began with a few hopeful emails has snowballed into an incredible story of resilience, inspiration, hope, and utter steadfastness.
At the end of January, I officially received confirmation from AA Sports that all the race entry fees would be waived for two of our clients and one of our staff members to compete in the Heartbreak Half and 10K races on February 9th. I had modest expectations for our two client runners, and, more than anything, was hoping for a positive first race experience.
Upon my return, the Monday after the race, I was greeted by absolute exuberance and glee as I received a minute by minute recounting of the race. I knew these guys could do it and do it well, but I was still captivated, moved, and awed by the embodiment of their success. For our two client runners, this race held great significance, measure, and accomplishment. And for one, this race was going to be the beginning of something truly spectacular. Ten months prior to the Heartbreaker Half, Mike was living on the streets, in despair, and in the depths of his heroin addiction. At mile 9 of the half, Mike paced out with his fellow miracle runner: a woman who had had surgery a year prior and was told she was never going to be able to run again. And yet, at mile 9, she was there. And so was he.
When Mike crossed the finish line, he had no idea how he had done. The important thing was that he had finished, and that he felt good about it. After a finish line reunion with his fellow miracle runner and her supporters, Mike awaited the reunion with his MRC running mates. He searched for his name and number to find his finish time, but it wasn’t posted yet. It wasn’t until the times were posted online that Mike was able to discover just how well he had done. What he found completely blew him (and all of us) away. He had run his first half marathon in 1:38:12, an average mile of 7:29. He placed third in his age group and his overall finish was 56th of 474 runners. Even more remarkable, Mike had quit smoking, a half pack a day habit, four days before the race.
Overflowing with appreciation, Mike contacted AA Sports to express his gratitude for the opportunity and experience. Lynne Sanders, the Director of Sales and Marketing at AA Sports and who had made the race registrations possible, was profoundly moved and inspired by Mike’s story, graciousness, and victory. She sent Mike his finisher’s medal for placing in his age group, and also informed him that, with his permission and willingness, she wanted to share his story with an editor at RaceCenter NW. She also notified Mike that AA Sports would like to offer him entry into a few of their upcoming races including the Spring Classic Duathlon, the My First Tri, and the PAC Crest Olympic Triathlon.
In addition to his treatment responsibilities, which at the time included finding a job, Mike drafted a letter asking for bike and equipment donations so that he could compete in the upcoming races. A taxing and emotional experience, he struggled to find a bike shop that would listen to his story. Unable to definitively secure his own bike, Mike rented a bike for the Duathlon the day before the race.
On March 30th, Mike completed the Spring Classic Duathlon, a 15 mile bike ride sandwiched by two 5K runs, in 1:28:32, and placed 12th of the 23 men in his age group. Again, Mike had impressive splits: his first 5K he completed in 18:42, the bike in 46:23, and the second 5K in 21:22. Even with the struggle and stress, Mike showed up, completed, and was victorious.
Big things were falling into place; Mike completed a half marathon, interviewed with RaceCenter NW magazine (his story is expected to be in a summer edition), reconnected with family estranged through his addiction, secured a good job, and completed a Duathlon. Overwhelmed and amazed, Mike remained grounded in grace and gratitude. Seeking opportunity to give back and show appreciation, Mike ran in a Boston Marathon solidarity run on April 15th with fellow Portland runners.
Today, Mike is working full-time, completing his aftercare, staying grounded in his recovery program, and training hard. He remains closely connected to Lynne, who has become one of his biggest champions and supporters. Through her, Mike was connected to Tri Pacific Coaching and a triathlon coach, and through that connection, Mike was donated a race bike from Athlete’s Lounge, a local triathlon shop. And as if this hasn’t snowballed enough, Mike was just informed that he will be donated a brand new wetsuit, from ProMotion Wetsuits, for his upcoming triathlons.
One afternoon Mike came into my office and I expected to hear more excitement from training successes and new gear, but he greeted me with a longer, more emotional pause. He had been entrusted with keys to the restaurant where he works; his first keys to anything in years. For Mike, it symbolized a kind of rebirth into life.
For this moment and the daily moments at the MRC, I am honored to be the Recreation Coordinator; to witness the greatness of recovery and re-discovery and to be reminded of strength, spirit, and the human capacity for change and growth. And the greatest gift is not being able to witness it for myself, but the opportunity to observe the clients realize it in and for themselves; to watch them hold it, be inspired, motivated, and moved by who they are and have the potential to be.