At the Heersink School of Medicine, it’s commonplace for students, staff, trainees, and faculty alike to blend their professional interests with service work. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, health disparities were more illuminated nationally than ever before, and opportunities for community outreach abounded.

One group of interdisciplinary students recognized a need among one of Birmingham’s most marginalized populations—those affected by homelessness. In the fall of 2020, James Harris, MS3, was compelled by the uncertainties of the pandemic to find ways to help homeless populations in Birmingham.

006SOM Magazine Harris3Left to right: Jordan George (MS3), James Pate (MS4), George Campbell (R2R client), and James Harris (MS3).

To support the emotional, mental, and physical needs of the homeless population in Birmingham, Harris—along with a few of his Auburn University alumni peers Jordan Carr, Garrett Rogers, and Jesse Westerhouse—started Run 2 Rebuild, an organization that provides a support network, motivation, and physical fitness education to the men of Birmingham’s Jimmie Hale Mission (JHM).

Harris says each of the founding members has a passion for running. “We have seen the beneficial traits that develop from this activity and the way it positively affects all areas of our lives. We wanted to find a way to share this passion and make an impact on individuals facing addiction or homelessness in Birmingham,” Harris says.

 “Our ultimate goal is to use running, goal setting, and camaraderie to help others reach their full potential in all areas of life. We began conversations with Michael Coleman, the director of Jimmie Hale Mission, in September 2019, and we officially launched a Pilot Program in early November of that year.”

Run 2 Rebuild recruits men at the JHM for a month-long running commitment. Each person enrolled in Run 2 Rebuild is asked to dedicate two mornings a week to run with the group. Harris explains that a few men enrolled in theinitial month-long program have continued running with the group after they completed their first month. “As of October, we have had over thirty-five runners from Jimmie Hale Mission,” he explains. “The current volunteer base is over twenty men who commit to run one morning per week. Morning volunteer shifts can vary but we try to have at least one volunteer per runner.”

The 1:1 ratio helps establish community and build relationships within the group, which is a main priority for the organization. The group currently has seven runners from JHM committed for the month of November.

Harris 500x700R2R client George Campbell runs with MS3 James Harris.Jackson Harbarger, a student in the UAB School of Dentistry, stepped up to help lead the group and serves as the program launch coordinator when new runners begin each month.

The group makes it a priority to acknowledge and celebrate when participants achieve running milestones, like 10, 25, or 50 total miles. Current scientific studies published in PLoS One and by the American Psychological Association are exploring the relationship between encouragement, motivation, and success—hypothesizing that encouragement and motivation solicit long-lasting brain emotional responses.

Run 2 Rebuild uses “Miles Further” boards for clients to sign to recognize when they hit a certain cumulative distance and to track milestones. “It is very rewarding to watch these men progress throughout the month. We ask them to set goals at the beginning and we make sure to celebrate each goal accomplished, encouraging them to continue setting higher goals,” Harris explains.

Several local businesses and individuals have donated goods and services to the group. Harris says those donors have helped make the program a reality.

For example, the running goods store The Trak Shak donated shoes to the clients, so that a lack of running shoes is not a concern. Mel Cosio, P.T., DPT, a recent graduate from the UAB Physical Therapy program, designed a full stretching routine for JHM clients to follow. “We go through this routine each morning before we run to prevent injuries and establish healthy habits,” Harris says. Also, UAB Medicine’s Sports and Exercise Medicine Clinic has provided new running shirts for the group to wear as they participate in races around the community.

Harris, who has an early interest in surgery, says this project has provided immense fulfillment in both his academic career and his personal life. “Building relationships with these men and providing support and motivation have been our goals from day one. I have been extremely blessed with the new friendships that I have formed through this program.”

“Many of these men have incredible stories and it is amazing to hear them open up and share great memories, struggles, and everything in between with us during our runs. My fulfillment comes from knowing that I can play a small role in helping these men achieve their goals and then use the traits that they develop through running to enhance other areas of their lives.” – Mary Ashley Canevaro