Photographer helps those experiencing homelessness

Posted by: Michele Cohen

At 5 am on Wednesdays, most people are still sleeping. But Lisa Simon is wide awake, sneakers on, ready to run.

Simon, a junior Photography & Digital Arts major and Business minor, is part of Back on My Feet,a national organization that uses running to help those experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves so they can make real change that results in employment and independent living.

For Back on My Feet Philadelphia, Simon and other Moore students run with residents and volunteers from Gaudenzia’s House of Passage in West Philadelphia, an all-female shelter for single women. House of Passage provides support services, including a computer lab, educational and vocational services and community building events.

“I think the basic idea is to motivate people to have energy and a can-do attitude,” Simon said.

Every week around 5 am, Simon and other students meet at Moore and take the College’s shuttle bus to the shelter. There, they connect with Passage residents and volunteers and run for about an hour, or up to 2 miles. Emily Johnson, Assistant Dean of Students at Moore, also runs with the group.

“It’s a very supportive environment,” Simon said. “You can hang with people who aren’t talking about their art projects and deadlines. It’s just about the active running. I like that I don’t have to be focusing on my brain. I can just tune out a little bit and there are many nice people to talk to. It’s a stress relief.”

Simon, who is not an active runner, learned about Back on My Feet through her friends who are involved with Student Services. They asked her to join and she thought it would be something fun to do with her friends and to “kick myself into gear,” she said.

“I’ve done volunteer work in the past, but right now it’s difficult to put aside time for things because of schoolwork,” she said. “But this is something that I’m pretty committed to. I think it has brought me out of my shell a little bit. I don’t think I would run at all if I didn’t have these people who go every week. [Running with these women] is also a reminder that you’re not alone in this struggle, or whatever you’re going through.”

Moore began partnering with Back on My Feet in 2012. Johnson had already been running with the group for two years and wanted to get students involved. Five students are participating this semester, but in the past there have been up to 12 students, she said.

“At first I wasn’t sure if students would be interested in getting up at 5 am and running, sometimes in the cold,” Johnson said. “I was happily surprised that when we put the invitation out, we had so many responses!”

Being from an all women’s college, Johnson said students can relate to and connect with the all-women Passage residents. Seeing the students interact with them and form relationships is powerful and rewarding, she said.

“When you are out there running with the residents of the shelter and other non-resident volunteers, you can’t tell the difference between the two,” she said. “It really shows you that we are all just people, and that at any given time, anyone could experience a hardship and end up in a position where you need some help.”

When she’s not running, Simon said she is focused on her PDA work and getting through a busy fall semester.
“Right now I’m discussing consumer culture and the ritual of consumerism,” she said. “It’s both intriguing but disturbing at the same time. I’m taking photos of still lives that make them look both beautiful and disgusting at the same time. I use elements of familiar rituals drawing from commodified holidays and rites of passage, but reconstructing them in a new, strange way.”

Simon said she applied to Moore because a friend was attending the College. She liked what she saw when she walked through the doors.

“There seemed to be some really good work coming out of the College and there are a lot of really smart people here,” she said. “All of the PDA staff are great, very knowledgeable and supportive in different ways.I definitely love being in Philadelphia because everything is so close. Any day can be a fun adventure and I can really access just about anything I need.”