Student project attracts grant funding, national attention, for inmates’ improved well-being

Tim Alderson believes that life is a lot like distance running. He’s got mileage, real-world research and a $5,000 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust to back him up.

“When I first conceived the idea to start a running program for female inmates at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, the barriers to success were pretty great,” said Alderson,’12.

“The beauty of the APU faculty is that they never lost hope in me.”

Alderson earned his master of science in counseling psychology at APU and is an Anchorage-area counselor. He’s also a New York City Marathon finisher and a distance runner since high school days, when he qualified for All-State competition four years in a row.

“Tim really exemplifies our students who use MSCP projects as a chance to contribute to our field and make a difference in the world,” said Renee Georg, ’96, director of APU’s MSCP program.

Alderson’s nonprofit program, Running Free Alaska, has attracted interest as far away as Colorado and Texas. His efforts are the subject of a “Counseling Today” article, published by the American Counseling Association.

Working with APU professors Dr. Kim Kjaersgaard and Dr. Robert Lane, Alderson proposed an MSCP thesis project that investigated the link between exercise – specifically distance running – and mental health among prisoners whose backgrounds often include addiction, physical or sexual trauma, homelessness and poverty.

“These common denominators don’t excuse crime,” Alderson said.

“But our runners at Hiland came to see that running is a great metaphor for life. There are good days and bad days, and how you do in the race depends on how you handle life’s setbacks.”

Since graduating and devoting time to turn his MSCP project into an Alaska nonprofit, Alderson said Running Free Alaska has enlisted more than a dozen volunteers to offer programs at Hiland six days a week.

A second program will bring Running Free to offenders housed at McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. A $5,000 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust helps buy shoes for runners.

“The Hiland program made so much sense. It didn’t seem right to let all that work go by the wayside once my MSCP research was done.”

Modeling his Hiland project after a Kansas prison program, Alderson designed a three-day-a-week, 12-week training system. Of 25 Hiland women who signed up, only four dropped out. Ages ranged from 21 to 58 and included inmates whose time left to serve was six months to 39 years.

Alderson wanted to know if systematic running could add to inmates’ physical and psychological health. Data showed improvement in each category. An added benefit: Hiland runners dropped a combined 46 pounds in 12 weeks.

“Research on the link between exercise – and running, in particular – and improved mental health is pretty clear,” Alderson said.

“For many of our runners, completing a 5K allowed them for the first time in their lives to have power over their bodies and circumstances.”

Alderson said Running Free gave him insight into ways that people may contribute to their own healing.

“That awareness is incredibly humbling,” he said. “It makes me a much better therapist.

“I don’t think I could have learned that anywhere but at APU.”

Committed to personalized instruction incorporating Alaska as our classroom, Alaska Pacific University is an accredited liberal arts and sciences university that engages students in applied, project-based learning.