A running program gets at-risk youth back on track

Sabine Medrano flipped through a copy of Runner’s World magazine, gleaning tips about super foods and running shoes, weight loss and mental perseverance—strategies that could help an avid runner, like her, improve.

One fateful page turn later, her eyes landed on Peter Vigneron’s 2011 article “A Fresh Start: Tackling a marathon gives inmates a new outlook on life.”

Sabine, a juvenile probation officer, was intrigued by how a women’s correctional facility in Kansas helped rehabilitate inmates through Running Free, an eight-week prison running club that helped lower participants’ recidivism, or relapse, and improve their overall physical and mental health.

Inspired, she shared the article with fellow juvenile probation officer Miranda Villarreal, and the two devised a plan to implement a similar program, called Run Free Texas, in the Williamson County Juvenile Justice Department.

“Our biggest goal is to provide a support system for these kids to get them back on track,” says Miranda. “We teach them the benefits of being physically active, because not only is it really great for your physical condition, but it’s also a great coping tool.”

Practices occur twice weekly for twelve weeks, during which time groups of four to eight kids are coached to run between 1 and 4.5 miles in an hour and a half. At the end of the program, they participate in a final 5K and a fundraiser to collect money for their race entry.

“Everything we’ll ask the kids to do, we’ll do with them,” explains Miranda. “That opens up communication, so we can counsel them about whatever issues they may bring up—hard times at school, hard times at home. . . . Also, I was not a runner when we first started Run Free Texas, so I can encourage the kids who aren’t experienced runners and tell them, ‘Look where I am now. If I can, you can.’”

Run Free Texas invites motivational speakers, including coaches, athletes, and entrepreneurs, to speak to participants and their families about goal-setting, healthy habits, and recovering from past failures. Olympic medalist Leo Manzano, Aztex soccer player Robin Martinez, and Southwestern University track coach and former Olympic runner Francine Larrieu Smith have spoken to the group.

“Leo Manzano’s talk really incited a passion in one of our kids. He’s now aiming for the Olympics and is working with a local coach to train on weekends,” says Miranda.

Youth who attend at least 75 percent of practices in the free, voluntary program and complete the fundraiser and community 5K are eligible to receive up to 26 community service hours. They may also return to subsequent groups to earn additional hours and to mentor others.

“A year ago, we had a kid come into the program who was not doing well in school; he had a chip on his shoulder and was having issues at home. During our running practices, we learned that he had a lot of sadness about his parents’ divorce and didn’t know how to communicate or handle that, which resulted in him making some poor decisions,” says Miranda.

Fast-forward a year, and that same participant has enthusiastically signed up for three subsequent twelve-week running sessions—twice as a mentor.

“He turned his life around. Now, he’s doing [well] at home; he’s doing [well] in school. He made the varsity wrestling team; he was selected as an assistant coach for a youth basketball group. And because he had made so many positive changes, his probation officer selected him out of 81 kids to let off probation early,” says Miranda. “It’s amazing—this program really can change lives.”

For more information or to donate to support the program, visit

To read the Runner’s World article that inspired Run Free Texas, visit

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