Martin Luther King (MLK) Drive was busy with the usual runners and bikers. As music played from a portable speaker set up on a white folding table with snacks and drinks, students and adult volunteers from Students Run Philly Style chatted around the table, ready to start their last race of the season on Saturday, May 22.
Students Run Philly Style, a mentoring program that pairs Philadelphia youth with adult volunteers to train side-by-side for long distance runs, was decked out in matching blue shirts, emblazoned with the Students Run Philly Style logo.
Other groups from Students Run Philly Style dotted MLK and Kelly drives, maintaining social distancing while also competing for the best 10k time. At the Schuylkill Banks Pergola, behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the MileUp team gathered, ready to run.
An initiative of Students Run Philly Style, this group is made up solely of individuals who have had experiences in the juvenile justice system.
MileUp is a diversion program that pairs students in the juvenile justice system eligible for restorative interventions and pairs them with staff, volunteers, and peer mentors. The program focuses on students who are on probation and at home detention.
Like other diversion programs, the goal is to keep individuals out of the system by offering them opportunities for restitution and personal development.
“We knew there were plenty of students in our program that, in one form or fashion, have had contact with the juvenile justice system,” Andy Kucer, executive director of Students Run Philly Style, said. “But we’ve never had an intentional program meeting that.”
To meet the needs of these students in a more focused way, Students Run Philly Style ran a pilot program in 2017 with the NorthEast Treatments Center, an organization serving youth who have been through the court system.
“We found that not only those young people were meeting these incredible milestones, but they had no issues of compliance with the court mandated requirements,” Kucer said. “So, what we did next was we reached out to the District Attorney‘s office and started a conversation.”
In January 2020 Students Run Philly Style officially launched its partnership with the District Attorney’s office to divert Philadelphia youth ages 11-17. Students who complete all milestone races and end-of-season reflection receive paid restitution, have their charges dropped, and their records expunged.
In addition to operating with volunteer mentors like other Students Run Philly Style teams, MileUp also uses youth advocates who jog with the students, developing supportive, one-on-one relationships as everyone runs. Youth advocates also provide transportation and check-in with students outside regular training and races.
On race day, youth advocate Brianna Vollmer, whom the students call “Coach B,” sat on the curb near MileUp student Ameer after he crossed the 10k finish line with her.
“I feel like an athlete,” Ameer said with some disbelief in his voice, looking up at Vollmer.
They started a back and forth conversation, and Vollmer let Ameer know he is an athlete.
Vollmer said the key to supporting MileUp students is to offer positive encouragement that focuses on each step and achievement, even when they want to quit running.
“I think even telling them one mile at a time is too much, you kind of got to literally go with them one step at a time,” Vollmer said. “It shows them progress in a way that the experience kind of emulates. You get there with the effort that you put into it.”
For program staff and volunteers, running, and the achievement felt after a race, offers the students a concrete way to connect to less tangible goals in other parts of their lives.
“Like with running, if you put in the hard work, you can actually achieve some of the goals,” volunteer mentor JD Mayer said.
Though MileUp started in spring 2020, it was only operational for five weeks before COVID-19 forced the program to go virtual. Youth advocates and volunteer mentors set goals with students and hosted virtual check-ins multiple times a week.
“One thing I think that we all agreed on was that we don’t want COVID-19 to be a reason that these students get sent back to the system,” Mariana Folco, Students Run Philly Style’s associate director of diversion, said.
The trauma and obstacles faced by students who move through the justice system means they need regular special attention, Kuce said. The pandemic offered a new kind of obstacle, but didn’t end students’ need for support.
“How do we make sure and ensure we are that support?” he asked.
MileUp’s second season began in the fall of 2020 with in-person running with masks and social distancing. MileUp students ran in three races with teams from the larger Students Run Philly Style program.
“It feels like a lot of pressure because you just want to get the program done,” MileUp student Aleigha said. “You want to be able to get the charges dropped and everything else. So, it’s a lot of pressure.”
Running with MileUp has given Aleigha a sense of structure and achievement, she said.
“Ever since I’ve got arrested, it’s helped me out,” Aleigha said. “I’ve gotten myself out of depression, and I’ve helped my anxiety and everything else.”
Staff in the District Attorney’s office have also seen a significant impact among MileUp students.
“You start to see they’re coming on time, their energy level was high, they’re smiling more,” Faith Harris, a program manager of juvenile diversion programs in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said. “They’re very accepting to the conversations with adults and other mentors, and you start to see pride that builds up inside of them.”
The MileUp program recently received a grant that has allowed the program to bring alumni back as peer mentors for the 2021 season.
“I just felt like I could help them,” Akayla, a peer mentor and member of Students Run Philly Style’s youth leadership council, said. “I know how it is because I’m a teenager myself. So, anything that they go through, I kinda understand.”
Being a peer mentor with MileUp has helped Akayla hold herself to a higher standard, she said.
“I got to be an example for them,” she said. “So, I got to better myself, to be the example for them.”
For the future, staff and volunteers hope the students will eventually compete in the major Philadelphia races in some capacity. But in the meantime, MileUp program staff and volunteers intend to support those who need it.
“They always make you feel like you got somebody to talk to even if you feel like you don’t,” Akayla said. “If you come here, you got somebody to talk to.”
*Students quoted in this story asked to only be addressed by first name due to relationship with the juvenile justice system.
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