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Helenia Bragg Thanks Running For Getting Her Back On Her Feet

Photo by Bruce Buckley

Running To A New Life

Running is often used as a metaphor for life. It requires moving with purpose and intention, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and not looking too far ahead or behind. It can be tempting to let the fear of stepping into the unknown keep you frozen in place, unable to make a change. Learning to manage fear and accept the possibility of failure is never easy, but it’s a worthwhile skill to cultivate. This is what builds resilience, and it is an essential component for both life and running.

Meet the embodiment of resilience, Helenia Bragg, also known as “Coffy.” Coffy had a tough start in life, but running has helped her find the way back to herself and to a life of new opportunities and experiences.

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Originally from Alexandria, Va., Coffy was raised in what is known as a “liquor house.” The men in her family were drug dealers, and it was a frequent occurrence to see people who were drunk or high in her home. “I was always exposed to liquor and drugs,” she says. This environment eventually led to a life of crime for Coffy. She was just 17 years old the first time she was incarcerated, and over the span of her life, Coffy has spent nearly 20 years in prison. In 2007, she was convicted of a felony for two bank robberies. When Coffy was released from prison last year, she was ready to make a change, and running became the key to creating a new life for herself.

“This last time in prison I realized that I could be something other than a drunk, addict or thief. Through the Sunshine Foundation, I was awarded a scholarship,” Coffy shares. (The Sunshine Foundation helps people achieve their dreams despite family financial restraints.) She started to attend Piedmont Community College, where she earned her associate’s degree. “During my time of going to college, I began to have self-confidence and self-worth. I started to be honest and stand for my word. My character began to change, and I wanted better things for myself.

“Once I was released, I didn’t have a safe place to go. I ended up at the Guest House [a reentry program for ex-offenders]. When I first heard about Back on My Feet, I thought, ‘Why are people getting up that early in the morning? I don’t run that early unless I’m running from the police.’ The people were so energetic and motivating, so I thought I would try out this thing. I developed a passion for it. The people encouraged me.

“Usually when a situation doesn’t go well, I run from myself,” Coffy adds. “I run to another city, to another state, to another relationship. To run just for the heck of it, I didn’t get it in the beginning. But I tried it.”

Photo by Bruce Buckley

Coffy started off just walking, and then stepped up to intervals of walking and jogging. That’s when her competitive streak began to come out. “I started to challenge myself. Wonder if I can jog two blocks straight without stopping?” Coffy says that the volunteers and staff were so encouraging and motivating on their runs that it kept her interested and engaged with the program. Coffy went from a total beginner runner to completing her first 5K just a few weeks later. She already has another 5K under her belt and runs regularly with the Back on My Feet program.

Back on My Feet is a nonprofit organization that works to end homelessness by providing employment and housing resources, along with a running program and a supportive community. “Back on My Feet serves members from a variety of different backgrounds who all have two things in common: homelessness and a wish to work their way out of their situation,” explains Katy Sherratt, the organization’s CEO.

Looking back on the last few months of her running program, Coffy reflects that the experience has changed her. “I used to run away from myself and from situations I could not control, and that made me uncomfortable. Like when I’m hurt, because I don’t know how to deal with hurt very well. Because in my past I would use drink and drugs, and now when I’m hurt, emotionally, I run. I run by myself, and I run hard until I hurt. I feel that physical pain, and that physical pain and that emotional pain seem to balance each other out. I can think my way through it; I can encourage myself to start over and face that challenge again.” Coffy is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Howard University in social work. She wants to be able to give back and help others get their lives back on track.

Running forces you to be in the moment and find your way forward under your own volition. As Coffy’s experience with running so powerfully illustrates, everyone must run their own race in life. To push yourself to your limits and beyond, and see how you come back together again, is one of life’s most transformative experiences.

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