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They train for more than a race

SUNDAY, APRIL 29, 2007

Three months ago, the thought of finishing a race like Bloomsday didn’t cross Jamie Perkins’ mind.

It wasn’t just because she was a smoker with poor eating habits and no history of exercise.

The 26-year-old was also a meth addict living out of a car with her 8-month-old baby and 2-year-old son.

“I lost everything,” said Perkins, who had been using drugs from the time she was 12. “I finally had enough. I got tired of living on the streets.”

Now a resident at St. Margaret’s Shelter, an emergency and transitional home for women and their children, Perkins has been drug-free for the past 90 days. Along with eight other women who live at the shelter, Perkins is also training for Bloomsday.

Crossing the finish line at Bloomsday has involved far more than finding a comfortable pair of running shoes and finding time to work out. For these mothers recovering from addictions, fleeing domestic abuse and striving to get out of poverty, getting to the starting line has been the biggest challenge of all.

Since mid-March, nine of the 18 families who live at St. Margaret’s have taken part in a wellness program not only to prepare them for next Sunday’s race but also to help them lead healthier lives.

In the past seven weeks, the women and their kids have taken part in yoga, meditation and self-defense classes. They’ve listened to speakers talk about the benefits of quitting smoking, eating healthful foods and exercising. Once a week, they gather in the shelter’s kitchen to prepare a meal full of fruits and vegetables for their families.

And on Saturdays, they’ve been going on long walks to prepare for Bloomsday. They started out at a mile, which caused some to huff and puff and break into a sweat, especially as they trudged up the South Hill. Although a few women smoke cigarettes during part of the walk, all are able to maintain a relatively brisk pace for at least four or five miles.

“We’ve all come a long way,” said Sonja Vernier, a mother of three who has lost 20 pounds and lowered her blood pressure by 50 points since she embarked on the wellness program. “I’m healthier now. I’m more in shape. I’m actually going to do Bloomsday for the first time.”

Bloomsday has become more than just a race for these women. In some ways, training for the event – the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other – has become a symbol of their own struggle to overcome addiction, find a safe haven and care for their children. Like everything, preparing for and actually finishing the 7.46-mile race will become a milestone – another step toward recovery and a healthier future.

Exercise has been an empowering experience for these women, whose motivation has never been about looking skinny in a bathing suit. They simply want to be healthy enough to stay clean and sober and to keep up with their children, said 23-year-old Shannon Hunt, who will do Bloomsday with 7-month-old Alayna in a backpack and 2-year-old Aiden in a stroller – a combined weight of more than 50 pounds.

Training for Bloomsday has also given them the discipline to fight the urge to get drunk or high and engage in the bad habits of the past.

Perkins has given birth to four children. She was able to quit using meth during her first three pregnancies, she said, but would start getting high again after giving birth.

When her youngest son, Dayveon, was born with complications because of her drug use, that’s when she realized she had a problem, she said. Still, Perkins continued to smoke meth so she could stay awake at night. She wanted to be able to hear the buzzers from the heart and breathing monitors that were attached to her baby, she said.

Shortly after Dayveon’s birth, Perkins lost her home. So she and her two youngest boys lived in motels. When they ran out of money, they lived out of her 2003 Ford Escape.

“My kids are my motivation now,” said Perkins, as she walked along the Centennial Trail on Saturday with others from St. Margaret’s. “They make me want to try harder. I want to prove to them that no matter how hard things get, I’m going to pull through.”

Since she went into rehab and moved into St. Margaret’s a month ago, Perkins has grown closer to her two oldest children, who were taken away from her and now live with their grandfather. Her 13-year-old daughter, Adreanna, recently joined her mother during one of the training walks.

“Is this what ‘normal’ feels like?” Perkins asked with a smile. “This is the longest I’ve ever been clean.”

Other women who took part in Saturday’s 4-mile walk also talked about their children and how their desire to care for them prompted drastic changes in their lives.

Rachel Rasband, 28, stopped smoking this year after she saw her oldest daughter’s letter to Santa. Makayla, age 12, wrote that she wanted nothing for Christmas; instead, she asked Santa to help her mom stop smoking so she could be healthy again.

Each time she’s tempted to go back to drugs, Christina Williams, 25, immediately starts to pray and think about her 21-month-old daughter, Julia. “She keeps me from doing something I’ll regret,” Williams said. “I don’t want to lose her.”

Katie Kaiser, a resident supervisor at St. Margaret’s and a Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteer, applied for a $4,000 grant to help implement the shelter’s wellness program. They’ve used the money to buy matching pink T-shirts for the moms as well as athletic shoes, raffle prizes, water bottles and a one-year group membership to the YMCA.

The funds also have gone toward the weekly meals that the women cook together. Along with the walks, these kitchen gatherings have been a source of comfort and empowerment for many women, including Rasband, a former drug addict who served more than a year in prison for theft and forgery.

She never had female friends until she came to St. Margaret’s, she said. In the “drug world,” women often had to battle one another to survive, Rasband explained.

Now, she’s not only cooking with other women; she’s also training with them for a race.

But there won’t be any competition Sunday among the women from St. Margaret’s. Instead, they’ll spend more than two hours taking turns carrying babies and pushing strollers full of kids, commiserating over aching joints and tight muscles, and cheering each other on as they slog through the miles at Bloomsday.

“It’s amazing to see women come together and pull together as a team,” said Rasband. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.”


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