Students Run Philly Style: Fostering Successful Youths via Racing and Mentorships

Students Run Philly Style’s (SRPS) mentoring program pairs Philadelphia and Camden youth (in Camden the program is named “I Run This City: Camden”) with volunteer adults and they train side-by-side for long distance races, including the Blue Cross Broad Street Run or the Philadelphia Full or Half Marathon. After 15 years, the program has grown from having just under 50 participants in its first year to 1,500 in 2019 alone. 


Inspired by a similar program in Los Angeles, SRPS was brought to Philadelphia thanks to the leadership of Susan Sherman, president and chief executive officer of the Independence Foundation, and a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program’s founder, Heather McDanel, built SRPS as an anti-obesity program but over time, the organization learned the majority of the program’s socio-emotional, academic, and connectedness outcomes were the direct result of mentoring relationships.


Two Students Run Philly Style participants on the race course. Photo by Heather McBride.
Two Students Run Philly Style participants on the race course. Photo by Heather McBride.


With a background in mentoring, SRPS’s current executive director, Andy Kucer, has seen the importance of mentor-mentee relationships firsthand. “[We] saw [that] the relationships between mentor and mentee was where the bulk of improvement was happening. We saw kids attending school more, setting big goals across their lives, and building more confidence as a result of their mentoring relationships. The amount of time that volunteers give to the youth in our program separates Students Run Philly Style from other mentoring programs. Being a consistent and positive mentor to youth and the depth of the intervention is what makes SRPS so special. Those relationships give the young people in our program the support they need to achieve all of their goals, both in running and in life.”


Students await the start of a race.
Students await the start of a race. Photo by Heather McBride.


The social of component of mentorship between mentors and participants gives credence to a unique team culture that comes with being a noncompetitive program. “SRPS is a noncompetitive program so we celebrate the person that finishes first as much as the person that finishes last,” Kucer said. “We don’t care how fast you finish it, we just care that you set that goal and finish that goal. What you see so often in this program is that the culture of the team really embodies that. No one finishes and goes home. Teams cheer their teammates on and mentors run back and forth to run them into the finish line. It’s really about that individual challenge and having the support, through peers and their mentors, to achieve it. It’s at the heart of what we do.” 


16-year-old Ethan Chen enjoys participating in SRPS. “I learned a lot about about pacing yourself, and learned in running that you can’t start out something too quickly,” Chen said. “I learned that if you pace yourself with things, you start to build up and get faster, and it translated to my personal life. It started to help me learn to take things slowly [at] first and [to] not overwhelm myself. [I learned to] pace my goals and that things take time to improve and achieve. My SRPS experience has been fun and I love the fact that it’s not just a competition, but it’s competing against yourself. I like the energy from SRPS staff, participants and mentors while running. I like running in general because it’s not as competitive as other sports and it’s about building yourself up to be a better person and improve as a person.”


Students during a race. Photo by Heather McBride.
Students during a race. Photo by Heather McBride.


Kucer is aware that running in a city can differ from running in a suburb or rural area. “What we’re really proud of is the ability to create that safe space wherever we are,” Kucer said. “The great thing about running is that you can run anywhere, whether in the park or around the block.  We try to run races that take advantage of running all over Philadelphia and Camden, and [that] show off parts of the cities that many of our youth might not have had the chance to see.”


Kucer notes that the health benefits of Students Run Philly Style extend beyond physical fitness. “There’s a litany of research that exists that supports the importance of physical activity in a student’s development,” Kucer said. “Researchers have shown a direct connection between mental health and physical activity. The physiological changes that happen when you’re running can really have a positive effect in dealing with stress, trauma or the wide array of adversity that our youth face. We know our youth are walking away with a lot of physical activity that they’ve accomplished and a deep appreciation for it.”


Kucer is an ardent supporter of eliminating barriers of access that prevent youth from participating in programs like SRPS. “It’s about making sure that there are programs that make things happen for youth,” Kucer said. “Many Philadelphia public schools don’t have after school athletic programs or are not offering them uniformly across the city. We focus on making sure we are offering the program to [as] many youth as we can, and doing so in a way that removes barriers of entry. From offering free shoes, shirts, races, and transportation, we have been able to ensure the program is available and accessible to anyone who is interested in participating. We want to make sure our program is available at no-cost to anyone, no matter their economic status or personal circumstances.”


Students race towards the finish line. Photo by Heather McBride.
Students and mentors race towards the finish line. Photo by Heather McBride.


As Students Run Philly Style continues to grow in scale, Kucer is hopeful that the organization can reach even more youth. “We have a lot of big goals for the organization,” Kucer said. “[We want to] make sure that we continue to grow in a sustainable and thoughtful way. More importantly, continuing to improve the impact of the program [is key]. We want to scale Students Run Philly Style’s evidence-based model across every segment of the population. Whether someone is in the juvenile justice or child welfare system, we want to maximize the impact of the program. We are thinking strategically on how we work with schools and the justice system because we have data to show that SRPS mentoring works and works well.”


This article was written in partnership with The HIVE at Spring Point. The Hive is a collection of organizations, individual practitioners, and youth who focus on strengths-based youth development that empowers young people to make positive change in their lives and their world.