In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.
At 5:45 a.m. on many weekdays, Lea Velez can be found in the parking lot of one of the local homeless shelters, gathered in a huddle with residents and volunteers, all wearing sneakers.
Velez is the one leading the chant:
"Who are we?"
"Back on My Feet!"
"How long are we gonna run?"
Velez is a welcoming blonde whose voice bursts with an enthusiasm unsuitable for the hour. But it's necessary for her job running Back on My Feet, a program aimed at transitioning the homeless back to independence with career training, job placement and, most important, running three days a week, before sunrise.
Delicate only in appearance, Velez has run 37 marathons, six Iron Mans and two 50-kilometer races, a track record she attributes modestly to "consistency and a little bit of stubbornness." Running became her vice when she was 15 and her grandmother died of congestive heart failure. "I decided my heart will never be my demise," Velez says.
She always dreamed of being an FBI agent, but it was a battle to get there. Her vision didn't pass muster, so she got Lasik surgery and joined the Carrollton police to gain experience. She was tripped up again when she heard her collarbone snap during police defense tactics training. She painfully finished the day, but was eventually forced to leave.
None of which deterred her from training for the White Rock Marathon, which she conquered with her arm across her body as though in a sling, before finally allowing her injury to heal and returning to the police academy once again. She served as a Carrollton cop for a year and a half.
Finally, the FBI called six months after her injury to continue the hiring process. But she had changed in the time that passed; it no longer felt right.
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She instead taught social work at University of Texas at Arlington and worked at RunOn!, the running store.
"Running was my constant through all of that craziness in my life," she says. While working at RunOn!, Velez saw the job listing for Back on My Feet, which launched out of Philadelphia in 2007 and was expanding to Dallas. Staring at the job posting, she felt the way she feels when training for a race -- obsessed, compelled. She got the job.
On February 14, 2011, about 200 people, at least 30 of whom woke up at a shelter, descended on Main Street Garden. She stood among the homeless people, volunteers and corporate partners, and she hugged them all. And then they ran.
See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here