RUNNING TO BEAT THE ODDS

They enter the gym and peel off their winter clothes. The youngest one wears blue shorts, a white T-shirt and a silver cross around her neck. An older one keeps on his jacket and ski cap as he does jumping jacks. The lighting is dim, the rafters are dusty and snow is just outside the walls.

“Let’s stretch!” the coach yells.

There are no uniforms, because they can’t afford uniforms, no real running shoes, because they can’t afford real running shoes. They stretch on a basketball floor and they run laps on a track above it, because this is how you make do, and for the kids on the Detroit Rescue Mission Greyhounds, whose parents may be homeless, in treatment, in transitional housing or just getting by – well, making do is what you do.

“Do you remember the shelter you lived in?” someone asks 7-year-old Genesis McClendon.

“Yes,” she says.

“What do you remember?”

“The beds. Sharing the room with other people.”

Genesis has a willowy frame, hair braided up, and a smile that could wipe a cynic off the sports page. When she runs, you cannot stop watching her, because she moves as if a collegiate sprinter had been shrunken into her little body. Her mother, Johnetta Harris, used to play “chase” with her on the way to work and noticed how fast she was, even at that age 4. But then her 17-year-old son was gunned down, Johnetta’s life unraveled, and she and Genesis became homeless. They moved from place to place.

Along the way, while staying at a Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries facility, the little girl joined the Greyhounds as a way of, her mother says, “doing something constructive.” Since then, Genesis has run the 800 meters in three minutes and won a silver medal in the state AAU championships. This summer, in Knoxville, Tenn., she competed at the AAU Junior Olympic Games, racing girls from all over the country.

“Where did you get your running shoes?” she is asked.

She touches the heel of a silver sneaker.

“Payless,” she says. The coach’s winding road

Now the team makes a small circle, including a 13-year-old shot putter, an 11-year-old long jumper and a 9-year-old sprinter. This building, the Oasis facility, on Woodward in Highland Park, was once a YMCA. Today there is a homeless shelter on the ground floor, a transitional housing unit on the upper levels – and, of course, in this reclaimed gymnasium, a home to the most unlikely track team you’ve ever seen.

“Who are we?” the coach yells.

“Greyhounds!” they yell back.

“Who are we?”

“Greyhounds!”

Carl Riggins, 57, is the coach. He wears a suit and tie on this day. But the former track and basketball player at Kettering High in Detroit was once homeless himself. His marriage went sour, he became suicidal and he simply walked away from life. For four years he slept anywhere he could, he says, from a cement factory to the roof of Ford Auditorium. He ate from trash bins or washed dishes for food, “until my hair got too full of lice and they wouldn’t let me in.”

A chance visit to the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries turned him around. He had a hot meal. Slept in a bed. Met with a counselor. “That place saved my life,” he says.

Today, he is the building manager for the Rescue Mission’s permanent housing. He also runs, among other things, programs for seniors and the choir.

But this is his baby. The Greyhounds. A track and field club. Riggins, who formed the team a few years ago, is its one-man band – mentor, coach, equipment man, driver. He transports the kids in a van that reads “Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries” on the side.

“They’re never embarrassed by that,” he says. “They’re like other kids. They just want to compete.” The plight of the downtrodden

On any given night in Detroit, there may be 10,000 homeless people on the streets. You talk to shelter managers and they will tell you it is getting worse as the state economy suffers. Some are ill. Some are substance abusers. But many are the working poor, who teeter every day on the edge of losing it all; when a bad wind blows – a layoff, a personal tragedy – they fall off.

And yet the human spirit is so resilient. So Riggins went from eating out of trash bins to an employee of the Rescue Mission. And Johnetta Harris went from bunk beds and transitional housing to a job selling concessions during baseball games at Comerica Park. She and Genesis recently moved into a one-bedroom in the Midtown Apartments. Genesis calls it “a castle.”

“I told my daughter, just because you’re in a homeless shelter you don’t have to act like it or live like it,” Johnetta says. “… I always knew we would get back on our feet. I tried to stay strong and taught her to be strong.”

There are two dozen or so kids – ages 7 to 15 – who meet after school to train as the Greyhounds, a team in name only, because there are no uniforms. Next month, the Greyhounds will begin their indoor circuits, maybe eight meets, Riggins says, and when the weather warms up, the outdoor series, maybe 15 more.

They compete against teams with expensive shoes, slick uniforms and new equipment. Teams whose training facilities don’t feature the smells of a homeless shelter kitchen.

You wonder what results the Greyhounds might post if they weren’t practicing with a shot put Riggins found “lying around” his home.

“Who are we?”

“Greyhounds!”

“One, two, three …”

“Greyhounds!”

And they run up a staircase, to do laps on the metal-railed oval that hangs over a basketball court. There goes an 11-year-old long jumper. There goes a 13-year-old shot putter. There goes a 7-year-old distance runner, her silver cross flying around her neck.

There goes hope – hope that things will get better, that lives can turn around. When asked what her little girl is getting for Christmas, Johnetta Harris admits, “I’m not able, right now, to get her anything, because my job is seasonal,” but there is hope, too, that maybe that will change. She named her daughter Genesis, she says, because a spirit reminded her that “Genesis means beginning, and there is a beginning to everything.”

As they thump around the track, the snow outside the walls, their young feet echoing off the gymnasium rafters, you hope this is the beginning of something bigger and better for all of them, because the most unlikely track team you’ve ever seen could use a break.

Read Albom’s past

Dreams Deferred stories

at www.freep.com/mitch

For those interested in helping the Greyhounds, call the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries at 313-993-4700 or visit DRMM.org. Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred has been a holiday tradition in the Sports pages of the Free Press since 1994. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent Free Press columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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