My journey in social entrepreneurship began not with a business plan, but rather when nothing went according to plan. I have been a competitive distance runner since elementary school; as a high school freshman, however, I suffered a hip stress fracture and was sidelined for my sophomore year as well. Devastated by my injuries then, today I consider them true blessings. They made me realize how deeply I love running and all it has given me: improved health, confidence, camaraderie. I empathized with disadvantaged kids who couldn't enjoy running -- not because of injury, but because they could not afford running shoes.
I turned adversity into opportunity by creating Give Running, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that teaches youth, through running, the character traits and skills that serve as a foundation for success in all aspects of life. Since 2006, Give Running has collected, cleaned, and donated more than 12,800 pairs of running and athletic shoes to youth in developing countries and local inner-city communities. To further promote a love for running and the benefits it fosters, Give Running also holds youth running camps that include leadership development and community service components emphasizing the broader application of lessons learned through sports.
In December 2009, I traveled to Mali in West Africa as part of the USC Africa Health Initiative and spent three weeks in the small village of Sikoro (population 450) building an irrigated community garden. I also brought 113 pairs of Give Running shoes -- as many as I could fit in five duffel bags. The day before departing, I went on a six-mile run circling through the village. After running the first few laps of my quarter-mile loop in solitude, I was soon joined by three, 10, and finally more than 20 smiling kids. My running partners were wearing the shoes they had recently received; for many, it was their first-ever footwear.
During this most memorable run of my life, one young man stood out because he was unable to race on the trail's rocky sections. Lameen Sacko, I learned, had not received a pair of gift shoes. The next morning -- my last in the village -- I met Lameen at his mud hut and asked him to try on my personal running shoes, which were the only shoes I brought for my own use in Mali. The size 11.5 SuperNovas fit Lameen perfectly. Closer to home, there were two brothers in Southern California who had a single pair of shoes between the two of them that were too small for the older brother and too big for the younger brother. The shoes were falling apart to the point that duct tape was holding them together. The brothers alternated days wearing the worn-through shoes so they could attend school.
Thanks to Give Running, each brother now has his own pair of well-fitting shoes so they can both attend school every day in comfort and with confidence. I view each opportunity to empathize with others and empower them to pay forward their passions as a newly planted seed waiting to ripen and blossom for the world. From these endeavors, I have learned that the success of our work is more truly defined by the seeds we sow than the crops we harvest because giving is not a single act but a process. To be certain, this process goes well beyond the moment of giving out shoes and running with youth to include anonymous caring souls donating their soles; volunteers sorting and cleaning shoes for the sake of the smiles they may never see; and the continued connections forged in neighborhood schools and distant orphanages.
A quote from renowned American poet and writer Maya Angelou hangs above my desk: "When you learn, teach; when you get, give." The most meaningful and fulfilling experiences of our lives source from teaching when we learn; giving when we receive. I also often think about a poem written by my great-grandfather Ansel, the first line of which reads: "The worker dies, but the work lives on." Living in the present moment, it is important to focus on the work rather than the title -- on what we do rather than who we are -- because ultimately who we are results from what we do and why we do it. And, if we do what we love, our work will live on. The doing, the work, the process is the teacher. And it is also the source of authentic joy. Let us step forward -- and never stop running.
Follow Greg Woodburn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GiveRunning