Run for your life


A Galway charity shows how running can have a life-changing effect on the homeless, writes ANNA KENNY

RONNIE McLOUGHLIN had just moved out of a homeless shelter and into a house last year when he started a programme developed by Galway fitness instructor Paul Fallon. Estranged from his family and suffering from type 2 diabetes, McLoughlin had been searching for a way to turn his life around.

By the time he completed Fallon’s eight-week programme, he was fitter, had lost weight, reduced his medication and was back in touch with his family.

Yesterday he took part in the Dublin City Marathon.

“Running is like a drug itself. And drink and running don’t mix, so it keeps me off that as well,” he says. “The routine is a big thing, it gets you up in the morning and gets you out.”

On The Road Again (OTRA), a Galway charity founded and directed by Fallon, uses physical exercise to bring about positive change in the lives of homeless people and those suffering from mental health issues.

The results so far have been dramatic: through its walking and running programme, the charity has succeeded not only in promoting physical fitness among participants, it has also visibly built their confidence, strength and self-esteem, and helped them become more self-sufficient.

Fallon originally designed an eight-week programme for McLoughlin – a client of Cope Galway’s resettlement service, which provides support to those moving out of homelessness into independent living.

“We were astonished at the improvement in him after the eight weeks,” says Fallon.

“He was much happier with himself, had lost weight and was able to reduce his medication. But the thing I was most encouraged by was that his wife got in touch after the programme to thank me and say they had them back in their lives again for the first time in a long time. Ronnie was in the right place at the time and he wanted to turn his life around.”

McLoughlin says: “I knew I needed to do something and I thought this is my chance. By the end of the eight weeks, my blood sugar levels had come right down and I knew I had to keep doing this.”

Fallon decided to build on their success, moving the scheme towards a more comprehensive personal development programme. “This time we included other homeless agencies, Galway Simon, St Vincent de Paul, Galway Diocesan Youth Services and Jigsaw [a mental health organisation for 16-25 year-olds]. There is a big cross-over between homelessness and mental health issues and many clients also have issues with drink or drugs. So I brought a life coach on board in an effort to help build their self-esteem and confidence.”

Thirty-seven people signed up for the programme last November, and these were split into smaller groups of about six, and then health screened. Participants of similar ability were grouped together, and a team leader assigned to each group.

“We do a lot to help them, but they have to put in a lot of effort themselves,” says Fallon. “We operate a three strikes and you’re out policy – so they can’t miss sessions without a reason.” Of the 37, 17 finished the programme, a completion rate that has impressed the homeless services “as these people have a lot of obstacles in their way”, he adds.

Mike Flanagan was in recovery for four and a half years when he heard about OTRA. He had never run before April.

“The biggest benefit I get from the programme is that it lifts my mood. I feel better about myself and it keeps me occupied,” he says.

“People in recovery need to keep occupied. I find it grounds me. It’s a form of meditation. When I start running, the endorphins hit straight away – I just love it. My whole daily routine has changed. I get up earlier in the morning. I have a purpose.”

Fallon says they encourage participants to set goals, and the “marathon is the ultimate goal”.

Yesterday OTRA participants Kofi Gogo, Ronnie McLoughlin, Didier Le Caherec and Mike Flanagan took part in the Dublin City Marathon and were joined by Cope Galway staff member Sylvia Colsh and Galway Simon volunteer Olivia Sanchez. Some of them started running only last April.

The success of the scheme has been highlighted by research conducted by Shauna Killeen, a graduate of Health Promotion from NUI Galway and a project worker with Cope Galway. She concludes that it “not only meets a number of its desired outcomes in regard to confidence and self-sufficiency, but also offers an alternative intervention for social support . . . Participants all spoke highly of the benefits of the programme in regard to confidence and self-esteem.”

Fallon ran 1,000 miles around Ireland last December in an effort to raise awareness. The charity also featured recently on RTÉ’s Secret Millionaire.

“Funding is very hard to come by – we get very little,” he says. “I’ve met Taoiseach Enda Kenny and John Treacy of the Sports Council to tell them all about it. “I’ve been shouting it from the rooftops and I’m going to keep doing so, because I know it works.”

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