This story is so uncommon that you might one day see it on TV — or a bigger screen. It’s a most unusual combination: 15 or 20 homeless men running for miles on the streets of Lakeland.
Begun about three years ago, it was the hope and prayer of Matt Nipper, a 40-year old young adult coordinator at Lakes Church, formerly Church at the Mall.
“At first, it wasn’t easy to get them excited about doing this,” Nipper said. And with a laugh, he said, “Some of these guys, the only running they ever did was running from the cops.”
“When Matt first asked me to run I couldn’t believe it,” said Cliff Wilkins, 33, He said he was repeatedly in jail for using methamphetamines and badly out of shape.
“Run? I thought: Why would I ever want to run?”
Like the other runners, Wilkins talks about his love for Nipper and strong camaraderie with his fellow runners. There are plenty of success stories in the group, which is teeming with men struggling with addictions.
The program also has been a hit with donors. Major League first baseman Steve Pearce donated loads of New Balance running shoes. He’s a Lakelander, former Tampa Bay Ray and buddy of Nipper. As an assistant baseball coach, Nipper coached Pearce at Lakeland High School.
As a member of the Boston Red Sox, Pearce was named World Series Most Valuable Player in 2018. And then, not coincidentally, endorsement money came flowing to Nipper from companies connected to Pearce, like New Era and Gillette.
But with that success comes a dilemma.
Nipper has been pressed by a dozen or so film companies and producers to do a documentary, a made-for-TV movie or even a full-length movie.
He said he’s even received interest from a “big” Hollywood actor.
Nipper isn’t sure which way to turn. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to do something.” But Nipper said he and his wife, Caroline, are trying to do what’s best.
Caroline Nipper is a mainstay in the group’s runs, usually three days a week, pushing a double stroller loaded with their daughters, ages 3 and 4.
Nipper said the hard part of the decision is he doesn’t want the fuss over any film production to have any negative influence over his guys. “I don’t want things to change,” he said.
Some of the 20 or so regular runners in the group stay at Lighthouse Ministries, where rehabilitation is the goal.
They worship at Lakes Church, where Nipper works, thus the connection.
The runners say Jesus — and Nipper — are their inspiration.
Wilkins said Nipper’s dedication to his running ministry has been rock solid. Wilkins has been changed; he now works as a maintenance man at the church and lives on his own.
Ryan Nichols, 43, from Plant City, said he has never felt better. “I hate doing this but I love the way it makes me feel,” Nichols said.
“A lot of it is the camaraderie. We help each other. Life is about tough moments. Everybody at times needs somebody to pull them along.”
The group often runs formal races, most recently the Gasparilla 5k in Tampa.
Brandon McShane, 33, said the program has helped him get his life on track. “We start with little goals,” he said. “And they turn into big ones.”