After helping organize three annual marathons inside the fence at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility — and witnessing the huge impacts they had on youths’ physical health, self-confidence, and personal accountability — Scott Palmer began dreaming bigger.
“This is something we should do at every OYA facility,” thought Palmer, a group life coordinator who works in one of MacLaren’s treatment malls.
Coincidentally, last fall, he met and worked with several young women from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility who had come to MacLaren to participate in certified recovery mentor (CRM) training. Palmer and MacLaren’s substance use coordinator, Mike Hill, both helped facilitate the CRM training and initially considered asking one of the youth to come back to MacLaren to participate in the marathon. Then they took it a step farther.
“We figured it would be better to bring a running event here to Oak Creek,” Palmer said. “The hope is to get a race series started here. I’m a big believer in the idea of using running as a life coping skill.”
On June 30, the dream came to fruition as Palmer, Hill, and several other OYA staff cheered on 10 youth from Oak Creek who were running a 10K — the first organized race at the facility.
Some of the youth were already runners, but others had not tried the sport until they started attending the weekly training sessions led by Palmer and Eleni Ruzicka, a qualified mental health professional at Oak Creek.
At the 10K finish line, where some of them cried with the emotion of completing their first race, the youth were already feeling different about their capabilities — both physically and mentally.
“I did some track before I came here, but I never really thought I could run distance,” said Hannah W., who finished second. “Every other girl was thin with nice legs and looked good in shorts. I never really thought I was that girl, that I could do it. Now I feel like I could run a marathon if I wanted to. I could do anything.”
The first-place runner, Josefina R., was the CRM-trained youth who inspired Palmer and Hill to expand the MacLaren running program. When they first approached her about running, she laughed. “I never worked out or anything like that,” she says.
But when she returned to her facility, Josefina reconsidered.
“I thought I might as well try it, because I’ve never accomplished anything like that being sober,” she said. “That was an inspiration to train and get in good health.”
Ruzicka, Hill, and Palmer all helped Josefina build her endurance from nothing to being able to complete the longest distance she has done so far: 13 miles. Her newfound inspiration to improve her health has also creeped into her work as a CRM.
“Being here pushed me to want to be a better person. My motto is to help people, and running is one of the things that drives me,” she said.
“I’m incorporating my running into my CRM work because running is a good way to stay sober. Plus, if you ever get triggered by something, you can run and think about stuff.”
Being here pushed me to want to be a better person. My motto is to help people, and running is one of the things that drives me.
Palmer recounted some of these benefits in the congratulatory talk he gave to the runners after the race.
“Running is a huge way to cope with stress and emotions and life’s craziness,” he told them. “I’m extremely proud of what you did today. It wasn’t easy for some of you, but what’s most important is that you stuck with it.”
Palmer hopes this will be the first of many chances for the youth at Oak Creek and the neighboring Young Women’s Transition Program (YWTP) youth to race. They are tentatively planning a 5K at Oak Creek later this summer, and potentially a half-marathon in October. On the Fourth of July, a small group of YWTP youth traveled with Ruzicka to Salem to run in the Stars & Stripes 5K.
Running Princess in Corvallis donated gift bags for the Oak Creek 10K finishers that included earbuds, water bottles, and snacks. And the youth have the help of former Olympic runner Ian Dobson — a strong supporter of MacLaren’s running program — who donated shoes for the 10K and cheered them on at the event.
All the support was not lost on the young runners.
“Being outside in nature helps me regulate my emotions when I’m feeling down and anxious,” Hannah said. She looked around at the sunlit, grassy courtyard, as other youth crossed the finish line nearby, and added, “Today is a super nice day, and people are here supporting us. It makes me feel happy.”