SALT LAKE CITY — Running Forward was established three years ago as a mentor program for at-risk students attending Title I schools in Salt Lake City.
John Asher and Jake Franklin, both members of Saint Catherine of Siena Newman Center, realized the benefits they were getting from running while training for the 2008 Salt Lake Marathon and wanted to help those in need.
"While training we would run past the Road Home homeless shelter and Saint Vincent de Paul Center downtown, and we started providing monthly meals through John’s nutrition business for the homeless either in Pioneer Park or near the Road Home," said Franklin. "We did that for over a year and through that experience, we built a rapport with these people. We wanted to do more to help them but we weren’t sure running would be enough, given the challenges they face."
In thinking about ways they could help, Asher and Franklin also considered the cycle of poverty and the circumstances that may have caused people to be in need.
"The power of a dream is big for us, so we started targeting the kids at risk in fourth through sixth grade and considered what could spark a change in them because they have potential just like any other kids," Franklin said.
The two men started providing a free running program as an early-morning or after-school program in four schools for over 120 students. "The first two years, we were able to provide healthy snacks for them and the third we added a monthly nutrition class," said Asher. "We make it fun and talk about portion sizes, the food groups, why it’s important to eat healthy and how it relates to exercise."
In the beginning, neither Franklin nor Asher knew how to start a non-profit; they simply approached some elementary schools and found that school officials were interested in their program.
"Researching a non-profit seemed daunting," said Asher. "At the time I was participating in a Bible study group at the Newman Center and the leader encouraged me to pray about it. I did and the next day my prayer was answered. A parishioner grandfathered us into his non-profit and the Bennion Center at the University of Utah gave us legal advice, which allowed us to take donations. Now we are able to provide the students with free T-shirts and shoes."
The first two years the Wasatch Running Company provided the shoes for the program at no cost, but "this year we had grown too big, so we bought the shoes at cost minus 10 percent," Asher said. "We raised the funds for the shoes by having 10 of our volunteers and Jake and I run in a half marathon and ask 20 people for $20 to sponsor us. There is no better feeling than to give shoes to the kids in need."
Both Asher and Franklin know the importance of having a mentor. Franklin was involved in youth groups growing up in Oregon until the fifth grade, when he moved to Utah. In Oregon he met his mentor: a priest, Father Jonah Lynch, who is now in Rome.
Asher’s first mentor was his grandmother and he still has three other mentors with whom he meets throughout the year.
"My father died when I was young, and my grandmother always told me I had a spiritual father and he was God, who left a blueprint – the Bible," said Asher. "Building a relationship with these kids is important. Jake and I are graduates and our volunteers are college students. These kids have the potential of being first-generation college students and hopefully they will see it as something they can do."