MOUNT VERNON — Healthcare providers have long recognized the benefits of exercise in treating conditions ranging from weight loss to depression to vascular disease.
Research shows that physical exercise also benefits individuals in rehab, whether from substance abuse disorders, mental health issues, or transitioning back into the community following incarceration.
While the benefit of exercise for rehabilitation is recognized, it is often overlooked. That’s something that Theresa Vernon of Ohio Means Jobs (OMJ) and Mount Vernon Municipal Judge John Thatcher hope to change, using running as a catalyst and working through MERIT Court.
As employment services counselor at OMJ, one of Vernon’s roles is outreach, primarily with individuals connected with the court system. She teaches job classes at the Alpha & Omega House, providing offenders the tools and resources to find work and re-enter the workforce.
“I have done quite a bit of research on efforts intended to help people struggling with substance abuse disorder, in recovery, or coming out of jail,” Vernon said.
She came across Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that focuses on helping people suffering from homelessness, using the power of exercise.
“Many people who suffer from homelessness suffer from substance abuse disorder as well,” Vernon explained. “The original thought was of running as a way to connect these people with people in the community who have opportunities for employment who can get them off of the street and in employment.”
Individuals in the Back on My Feet program have logged more than 950,000 miles. More significantly, over 7,500 (70%) are employed and housed, and 83% maintain employment.
“In the process of running and making connections, people will get physically fit. But now they have the support system that will help them combat the challenges of life,” Vernon said.
“These people were getting jobs with various companies and getting off the street. In the process of making connections and getting jobs, they were getting off substance abuse as well.”
Excited about using running to make what she calls “organic connections,” Vernon said she was unsure how to get started. “How do we do this? How do we coordinate this and achieve this?” were the recurring questions.
“I have been wanting to do this for five years now,” Vernon said of starting a running program to aid rehabilitation. “Now, just at the right time, I was placed in the position of connecting with Judge Thatcher.”
When Vernon presented the idea of a running program to the MERIT Court treatment team, Judge Thatcher immediately researched 5K runs and found Paddle for Heroes set for Saturday, May 6, at Ariel-Foundation Park.
“The idea of running really has a lot to do with replacing the activities they have participated in in the past with good activities like exercise and being around people who are positive influences,” Thatcher said.
“If you replace bad activities with good activities and people who support your sobriety, you are going to be more successful.”
He also noted that you can deal with problems better if your health is good.
“We talk about mind, body, and spirit; it’s all related. It all comes into play,” Thatcher said.
Some MERIT Court participants have taken advantage of paid memberships to the Chris-Fit Program at Knox Community Hospital’s wellness center.
“The difference is that is on their own time, it’s not a group. With this 5K, they’ll participate as a group,” Thatcher said. “My hope is they will find they enjoy walking or running and will stick with it. I’d like to see them enjoy the 5K enough to start getting together on their own.”
Thatcher said he would like to see a group get together that includes recovery group members and other runners but noted the difficulty in matching up schedules.
“We emphasize to group members that even though you’ve been in trouble and are part of the court system, you are still part of the community. You have something that you can do, too. You have a place and a role,” he said.
MERIT Court folks must participate in the 5K, whether by walking, jogging, or some form of community service such as cleaning up or helping at an aid station. KSAAT covered the entry fees for those running. In addition, Running2bwell provided free shoes for everyone.
Established in 2015, Running2bwell (R2BW) uses running/walking to combat addiction and mental health issues.
“Running provides you with constructive things to do in your spare time,” R2BW board member Roy Heger said. “You’re building that network of people when you don’t want to be alone. Building a community is what we work at.”
Since its founding, R2BW has helped more than 1,200 people through its eight locations in northern Ohio. The nonprofit averages 130-plus people each week, has trained 40 mentors and hosts seven local 5Ks.
Heger, 37 years sober and a veteran ultra runner, is a mentor at R2BW’s Wadsworth location, working primarily with men involved with CATS (Community Treatment and Assessment Services).
“We run, we talk, and we go back inside and recover,” Heger told the MERIT Court group. “It’s hard, but you’ll notice that everything else goes away. Afterward, there’s a little something inside of you that realizes things didn’t get worse. And that’s the first step in getting better.
“The day you came to this court, you got an opportunity,” he added.
Heger said of the upcoming 5K, “Just by participating, you help the community. You inspire someone. You see, you feel a little bit better. You don’t have to be a gazelle; you can be a regular person.
“You forget about everything else; you forget about your phone. You connect with people,” he added.
Holly, who helped Heger distribute the shoes, also serves as a mentor with R2BW. She lost a loved one to addiction and has dealt with mental health issues. A proponent of running as positive therapy, she said, “when you’re running, you can’t think about all of the baggage.”
On April 22, Holly finished her first trail run, 18.1 miles at Mohican State Park. Men from CATS took turns accompanying her on the trail.
“Many people struggling with homelessness or substance abuse disorder are so down on themselves,” Vernon said. “To finish a run like that is amazing. It shows them they have strength; it gives them self-confidence. It gives them the ability to say ‘If I can do this, I can do this other thing.'”
Vernon noted that most people have a natural support system — friends or family — they can call on when they need help.
“Many people who struggle with substance abuse disorder or mental health issues don’t necessarily have those natural supports,” she said. “The idea is not just meeting in the morning to run and then going our different directions. It’s building relationships.”
Vernon said that “once you start making connections, then you have a situation where you have an organic, natural support system.”
“Homelessness, substance abuse, or whatever they face, I think it’s when you make those connections with other people that you begin to realize ‘I am not alone.’ It’s realizing that you are not alone that gives you the strength to overcome those challenges,” she said.
Vernon acknowledged that establishing a rehabilitation running program seems so simple — pick a meeting date and go from there — but logistics are more involved.
“There needs to be buy-in from the community, people willing to come alongside people to help,” she said. “Employment and meaningful connections are the biggest aids in helping people who struggle with addiction.
“Hopefully, the program will grow to include everyone in the court system who needs help. Hopefully, as the word gets out, it can become a movement.
Mount Vernon Schools Superintendent William Seder has offered the use of Energy Fieldhouse as a venue for running/walking during inclement weather. Judge Thatcher will soon hold a MERIT Court meeting at the field house. Anyone wishing to become involved or learn more is encouraged to call Theresa Vernon at 740-399-3648.