What started as a passion project for a West Michigan resident is now a national movement that captured the attention of a well-known marathon race.
Sasha Wolff launched Still I Run, headquartered in Hudsonville, in 2016. To date, the organization is the only nonprofit running community in the United States that works to promote the benefits of running for mental health.
Still I Run now has been selected as an official charity partner for the 2022 TCS New York City Marathon, which will bring runners from around the world to race through the five boroughs of NYC on Sunday, Nov. 6.
As a chosen partner, Still I Run gets to offer guaranteed entry to five runners, who will also receive assistance from a running coach, training plans, training gear and swag from sponsors. Runners also will be asked to help fundraise for the organization as they prepare for the marathon.
Since its inception in 2006, the TCS New York City Marathon Official Charity Partner Program has raised more than $ 400 million for more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations around the world. Prior to the start of the official program, the New York City Marathon had served as an outlet for individual philanthropic runners since the 1980s.
For Wolff, the partnership is an opportunity to bring up conversations about mental health through the lens of running and other exercise – a cause fueled by her own personal experience.
Wolff said she was diagnosed with depression in 2003 and, eight years later, was hospitalized for a week at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services for depression and anxiety.
“After that diagnosis in 2003, I stayed silent about it and did not really do much to properly take care of myself until I was hospitalized in 2011, ”Wolff said. “I pretty much stayed silent and fearful of sharing with anyone for eight years.”
At Pine Rest, Wolff said she learned that, in addition to medication and therapy, developing a healthy habit could help manage her mental health. So, she turned to running.
“I was not much of a runner before then,” Wolff said. “But I decided to go for a jog one day after I was released from the hospital, and I felt a bit better afterwards. I felt accomplished. ”
Once Wolff started running on a regular basis to benefit her own mental health, she wanted to connect with others who did so for the same purpose. After looking for a group in the West Michigan area, she widened her search to all of Michigan and then the US but could not find the group she hoped to have.
She decided to create her own community and launched a Facebook page and personal website in 2016 to share her story. The response she received was unexpected, she said.
“I thought only friends and family would enjoy my efforts to defeat the (mental health) stigma through running and sharing my story,” Wolff said. “Then there was an outpouring from the community, my friends and family, and people who live in the area who also ran for their own mental health.”
The response gave Wolff an idea to form a nonprofit, and she launched Still I Run on Oct. 10 – World Mental Health Day – in 2016.
Still I Run operates today as an official nonprofit organization led by a team of volunteers and ambassadors across the country. Interest in the organization has stretched to other parts of the world, including Canada, India and the United Kingdom.
One of Still I Run’s main programs is the Starting Line Scholarship, which seeks to break down the barriers to getting started by providing shoes and running gear to beginners thanks to a partnership with Striders in Grandville. The scholarship also includes coaching, a 10-12 week running plan and paid entry into a 5K or 10K race.
Overall, the organization’s three primary goals are to defeat the mental health stigma, promote the benefits of running and foster the sense of community that Wolff originally wanted to find.
When the COVID-19 pandemic introduced lockdowns and quarantine in 2020, Wolff noticed an increased interest in the online community. Still I Run was able to host virtual races and reach out to people through social media at a time when connecting in-person was not feasible.
Wolff said while the pandemic may be winding down, a mental health crisis is still ramping up.
“It’s more important than ever that we talk about mental health,” she said. “We want to let people know that they are not alone.”
Going forward, Wolff said she hopes to infuse more mental health initiatives into everything that Still I Run does. Future goals include providing membership to a mental health gym and launching a new Mental Health Runner program that focuses more on intentional wellness.
Her biggest goal, which will take “a lot of people, money and resources,” is to create a program that helps people find and pay for mental health care, she said.
Despite the challenge of operating a nonprofit on top of being a wife, mother of two and employee at MillerKnoll, Wolff said Still I Run is her passion and a positive outcome from her own journey.