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Strong Through Every Mile, or STEM Running, is a nonprofit organization which helps victims of domestic violence regain strength and confidence through a “couch to 5K” program. This group was formed three years ago when someone asked on a local Facebook running page where they could donate their old running sneakers. When Albany Law alumna Allison Bradley ’11, an associate analyst at the New York State Senate and avid runner, read the comment that STEM was taking shoes — and volunteers — she knew she wanted to be a part of the movement.
Bradley credits Jennifer Gish for having the idea to found this organization, which is currently the only one of its kind. There are other running groups that share the same goal of rehabilitating victims, but STEM Running is the only one that focuses specifically on domestic violence issues and awareness. In order for these women to successfully recover, the volunteers try to help them stay confident and safe on every run. They constantly look for the safest running locations and keep their end-5K races confidential so that the women feel secure. The program lasts eight to 10 weeks and has about two sessions per year.
The organization has grown into something much bigger than a running group that meets a few times a week.
“Almost from the beginning, walls come down when you’re running,” Bradley said. “Even from Day 1, when there were only eight people running, there was an immediate bond and the women became friends. I saw case managers develop relationships with their clients; athletes, clients and trainers become friends; and combative relationships change. In some cases, they no longer have a case manager-to-client relationship, their whole trust level and communication is changed. There has been a ripple effect outside of the groups.”
Bradley said she wasn’t sure what the group would become when it first formed. They’re currently at a point in the programs growth where they’re deciding the next steps to take and which direction STEM Running will go. What began as one group of runners coming from a rehabilitation center has turned into three and four groups, and is still growing.
“There are big aspirations for the group especially since it is the only one of its kind in the country. We have to be flexible and just roll with it sometimes because that’s the nature of this specific group, but STEM’s future looks bright,” said Bradley.
STEM is in constant contact with the women in the group and the domestic violence rehabilitation organizations they belong to. While the volunteers are typically not trained social workers, they have to go through training before running with the women. Bradley has seen dramatic results in the strength these women find through running and what it has done for them in other areas of their lives. In some cases the women have been able to work public jobs even with social anxiety, gone from being unemployed to finding a job, and some others have permanently left their abusers. “Aside from their sense of accomplishment at the end of the race, these are some of the most important things they gain,” said Bradley.
“Volunteers are trained to look for possible triggers and try to help the women avoid or overcome them. The women have a private group on Facebook so they can reach out to each other for support whenever they need it. We monitor the site and are in constant contact with them so we know that they’re safe, or if they need help in a crisis,” said Bradley.
Gish saw a need to help these domestic violence survivors and knew that running was the way to do it. Having been through the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5K “Couch to 5K” program herself, she saw how substantial the results were for her and wanted to bring the therapeutic nature of running to others.
“Since many of the women come with a low fitness baseline, a 5K is a good starting point for them. They don’t need too many other supplies besides sneakers to get out the door,” Bradley said. “Finishing the race is something that is all theirs and no one can take that away from them. It’s also a victory for the volunteers to see how accomplished they are when they finally cross the finish line at the end of the 10-week training cycle. The end of the race can feel like a marathon, and to them the accomplishment is just as big as finishing a marathon.”
Even though the volunteers have full-time jobs, they still find time to go to STEM board meetings and are out there every day running with the survivors. It’s challenging to have an organization run only on volunteers and donations but Bradley said they have been fortunate in their support.
“Another challenge is people’s attitude toward domestic violence. The communication has gotten a lot better and people are more vocal about sexual violence but the fact that STEM is still a necessary group shows that work still needs to be done to have conversations about domestic violence,” said Bradley.
Bradley reached out to professors from Albany Law School who she still remains in contact with and has been supported by them since the beginning. This fall, the Albany Law School Women’s Caucus trained and brought 12 to 15 women from the law school to volunteer for STEM Running. Bradley is comforted by the support her alma mater has shown and will continue helping STEM runners to succeed.