Going The Distance: Mentoring Program Focuses On Running, Relationships

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53 strong at the 2011 National Half Marathon and Half Marathon Relay i

53 strong at the 2011 National Half Marathon and Half Marathon Relay Benson Forman/Teens Run DC hide caption

itoggle caption Benson Forman/Teens Run DC
53 strong at the 2011 National Half Marathon and Half Marathon Relay

53 strong at the 2011 National Half Marathon and Half Marathon Relay

Benson Forman/Teens Run DC

Teens Run DC is an after-school program in the nation's capital that pairs economically disadvantaged teens with adult long-distance runners. The program aims to motivate youth to run great distances, and to give them a new way of looking at themselves. This week's Washington Post Magazine profiles the program's founder Benson Forman. To learn more about the program, host Michel Martin speaks with Forman and Washington Post staff writer DeNeen Brown.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, I'll share some of my thoughts in my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary. That's coming up.

But, first, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week, for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, we have a story about a group of teens being challenged to cross a finish line. It's not about graduation. It's about running. Teens Run DC is an after school mentoring program here in Washington, D.C. It matches up teens with adult long distance runners in the hopes that running may provide a window through which the teens will see themselves in a different light.

In a piece titled "Running for Their Lives," staff writer DeNeen Brown writes about Teens Run DC, its founder and some of the young people who are part of it. DeNeen Brown is back with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back.

DENEEN BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Diamond Dig(ph). She's a sophomore at Cardoza High School here in D.C. She participates in Teens Run DC. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

DIAMOND DIG: Thank you.

MARTIN: And also with us, Benson Forman. He's a clinical psychologist. He's the founder of Teens Run DC. And he's here with us, also. Thank you for coming.

BENSON FORMAN: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, how did you get the idea for this? You're a runner, I take it.

FORMAN: I am a runner, although not a brilliant runner. I had written an article in the Runner's World magazine about a similar program out of Los Angeles, and I thought it was a great program. And I had started a youth mentoring program earlier. And I thought this would be a nice compliment to the programs that we had going on.

MARTIN: What did you think running would offer that other forms of activity would not?

FORMAN: Well, I think, you know, there are different ways of connecting with kids. And I thought that physical activity is always good for kids. It gets the endorphins kicking in, and we live in a culture where there's not a lot of movement. So getting kids out running would be a good thing. But as much as it is about the running, it really is about the relationships and hanging out and making connections.

MARTIN: With the mentors.

FORMAN: With the mentors and with the running leaders. We're trying to create a community.

MARTIN: Diamond, why did you want to participate?

DIG: Well, at first, I wasn't so excited about participating in the program. But once my teachers explained to me that it was something that I could do and I got interested in it and started going, I became more enlightened to it. Like, I liked it more, got more friends and hanging out. And it just helped me stay fit.

MARTIN: Diamond, you're featured prominently in this piece. It kind of describes you as kind of tough cookie. Do you agree with that assessment?

DIG: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, apparently, your mentors call you to make sure you're coming. And apparently, these calls kind of get on your nerves. Here's - I'm just going to read one paragraph from the piece. DeNeen's quoting you. It says, "You calling me is not going to make me come. It irritates me, actually. Don't call me and ask me if I'm running. I'm not there, I'm not coming." What's up with the 'tude, girl? What's going on?

DIG: I don't have a 'tude, but I just get irritated if it's already known that I'm not coming and you're still pressuring for me to come. It irritates me a little.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't you go?

DIG: Sometimes you're just not up to running, you know. It's not like I've been running for a long time, so sometimes I just want to take a break, do other things.

MARTIN: Can I ask the flip side of it? Do people calling you - does that make you feel like they care enough about you to call?

DIG: Yeah, it does. I mean, I feel like I'm a part of a group. But, still...

MARTIN: You're still annoyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming today.

DIG: Thank you.

MARTIN: Did we call you and annoy you to make you come? Did we get on your nerves?

DIG: No.

MARTIN: No? OK. Just checking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Benson Forman, I'm going to ask you to put on your clinical psychologist hat and just ask you, even though, Diamond, you're sitting right here, we're going to talk about you as if you're not sitting right here. How do you interpret what you just heard, the sometimes yes, sometimes no kind of annoyance? Is that adolescence, or is that something else?

FORMAN: I think it's in part adolescence, and it's in part an ambivalence about making a connection, knowing that if I show up, are people really going to be here consistently going to show up with me, to be here for me? Because I think oftentimes, kids have the experience showing up and nobody being there. I think DeNeen mentioned, I think it was in the article, mentioning about Diamond showing up at a practice and the gates are locked and she's trying to figure out how to get in.

So I think that there's a part, even though Diamond will say, push away at times, there's another part that's always also trying to make connection, which I believe it's hard. All these kids want - they want to make a connection. They want to make connection to individual, individual relationships. They want to feel part of community. They want that, too. And they want to have a chance to develop some mastery. So the running itself, hey, I mean, running 13 miles. Who runs 13 miles? What an incredible thing to do. So I think it's a combination of all those experiences that bring them out.

MARTIN: You know, the piece also makes the point - DeNeen, I haven't forgotten about you - but the piece also makes the point that even though Diamond sometimes has a tude, and doesn't always show up, that sometimes she'll go to extraordinary efforts...

BENSON FORMAN FOUNDER, TEENS RUN DC: Right.

MARTIN: ...in order to show up.

DC: Right.

MARTIN: Sometimes, you know, running without your proper gear...

DIG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...if for sometimes you don't have it. And, as Dr. Forman pointed out, sometimes, you know, having to really go an awfully long way....

DC: Right.

MARTIN: ...in order to participate. DeNeen, one of the things that I think was intriguing about this piece is that it speaks to something that a lot of people experience in cities, is that you - you know, people, we're all living in their separate corners but they want to find a way to connect but they don't always have a way to connect. I wanted to ask you about like about some of the adult mentors whom you interviewed. Why did they want to participate in this?

BROWN: Well, some of them were long-distance runners themselves and they wanted to give back to the community. They really wanted to connect with students. But I think they also met challenges in this program. And there were times when they'd show up for practice and none of the students were there. But there were also times when Diamond would show up for practice. And there's a scene in the story where Diamond shows up. She's right on time to meet me at the gates of the track and the gates are locked. So I wanted to show the other the flipside of that too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly dip into the Washington Post Magazine. And this week, we're talking about a piece about a teen mentoring program that involves long-distance running. It matches teen runners with adult mentors. I'm speaking with Diamond Dig. She's a sophomore at Cardozo High School here in Washington, D.C. She's part of that program called Teens Run D.C. Also with us is Benson Forman. He's a clinical psychologist. He's the founder of that program. And DeNeen Brown. She wrote about Teens Run D.C. in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

I want to talk about race for a minute. Fair to say most of the kids are African-American. And...

DC: I would say actually a third of them are African-American, a third are - at Cardozo they're primarily African...

MARTIN: At Cardozo they're primarily. Diamond's school.

DC: That's correct. Yeah.

MARTIN: And the mentors, what about them?

DC: Mixed. I would say African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian.

MARTIN: And do you find sometimes, maybe Diamond, I'll ask you this. Was that odd for you at first? Your mentor is white.

DIG: No.

MARTIN: A young white woman. Was that weird?

DIG: No, not at all. I mean we're all people. It's not like I'm not used to being around people of different race.

MARTIN: In some of the schools in D.C. that is the case. I mean some of the schools are very one-way or very the other way, right? They're either very African-American or they're very not, you know?

DC: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I wonder about, Dr. Forman, was that part of the idea - to kind of get, mix it up?

DC: I think it is. I mean the program is primarily geared towards working with at-risk youth, inner-city kids. But when it comes down to really, we'll take any kid who really wants to be a part of the program. So right now we have the program at Wilson and Cardozo and during the week they practice separately; on weekends they get together. I was just talking with Will Taylor, one of our students who'd come by and he said like he reaches out to some of the kids from Wilson who he's made connections with over the course of the program and say hey, we should get together. So I think it's been a nice experience for a lot of the kids mixing up the two schools.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask each of you, what do you think you've gotten out of the program? So Diamond, what do you think you've gotten out of it? And what do you think you've given? Because obviously, you know, with any exchange you teach as well as you learn. So what do you think you've taught some of the other kids and maybe the adults in the program, what do you think you've learned?

DIG: I just feel like I haven't really taught too much but I've given my opinion on things and I feel like I can do anything. It was something that I overcame even though I thought that it was something that I couldn't do and at the end it was finished. I just felt powerful.

MARTIN: Like a mini - when you ran the mini marathon?

DIG: Yes.

MARTIN: Which was how long?

DIG: Thirteen miles.

MARTIN: Thirteen miles?

DIG: Yes. It was my longest run.

MARTIN: Would it be appropriate to give you a you go girl at this point?

DIG: Yes. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thirteen miles - particularly as a novice runner, having just started this year. Dr. Forman, what do you think you've learned from the program? What do you think you've taught?

DC: Well, I'm constantly learning, trying to figure out how to make this program work and be effective. You know, again, we have different components and we've changed it over the course of even from one year to the next. So learning a lot about what kids needed. First this year I thought that it was going to be the one-on-one mentoring that really was going to bring these kids to the program completely, and that was the key which we hadn't had our first year. And now what I'm seeing really it is a combination of the one-on-one mentoring but the community itself.

Having a community that the kids can belong to is almost as important as the individual mentoring. In terms of what I'm getting, I think I'm learning a lot about people and just a chance to interact with these kids and trying to create something. I'm grateful for the opportunity that they provide me to create this program and really trying to create a community.

MARTIN: You know one of the things I'm curious about? A lot of times people say that they would like to participate in something like this but they're scared because they're afraid that they'll get cursed out or that a student isn't as interested as they are, that they'll be discouraged. I'm wondering if you have a message for people who might like to be involved in something like this.

DC: Well, I think the message is - and I think this really is a very important thing - is that it often is a discouraging experience. If I can show up for practice, I can show up, I can make lunch, have lunch with the kids and then go out to the track and be running there by myself with no kid. But I think the important piece is staying with it because I think that's the thing that needs to be known.

As an example, I can say I got a phone call - normally I go there for lunch on Monday afternoons and, you know, sometimes kids will show up, sometimes they don't show up, but on Tuesday, this past Tuesday, I got a call from a teacher and the teacher saying gee, are you coming for lunch today? And I say gee, Monday is the day I come for lunch and, you know, it was a holiday. I wasn't there. Say, oh, the kids were asking are you going to be there. Now some of these kids are kids who don't even - who may show up or may not show up for lunch. But I think the important thing of knowing that I am going to be there, that people are going to be there. And I think the important thing is for us to show up and stay there, stay consistent.

MARTIN: Diamond, what about you? Do you have a message for kids who might have heard about it and think, I don't know if I want to do that? What you think? What's your message for people based on the experience you've had?

DIG: Well, the group is really welcoming so like you shouldn't be afraid to want to join. I mean most of the people that joined they really actually start liking it because I mean it's fun. I mean running is a way to get things out of your mind, it gives you time to think, fresh air, breathe. It's just a learning experience.

MARTIN: DeNeen, what would you like people to draw from the piece - you spent a lot of time on it with a lot of different folks.

BROWN: I think as a writer I wanted to show in the piece the tension. I was fascinated by Ben's perseverance and his persistence following him through the hallways. I think Diamond learned as much from Ben as Ben learned from Diamond. I really do think that, you know, Ben learned a lot from the students.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think some of those learnings were?

BROWN: Well, I think it's the stories about overcoming odds, you know, about persistence, about perseverance, about running the distance and making it, and not giving up and the challenges of overcoming generalizations and stereotypes. But it's actually a fun story to do. I showed up at every practice just waiting to see whether something would happen.

MARTIN: Did it make you want to lace up your running shoes?

BROWN: I did. Actually, I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: Staff writer DeNeen Brown wrote about Benson Forman and the Teens Run D.C. program in this week's Washington Post Magazine. If you'd like to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, it's titled "Running for Their Lives." We'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. DeNeen Brown was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Diamond Dig and Benson Forman. Thank you all so much for joining us.

DIG: Thank you for having me.

DC: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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