Running Through a Journey of Hope

David Noriega was first arrested when he was 21, and had been in and out of jail for the following 13 years. He had been battling with alcohol and drug addiction since he was 13 years old. He had three heroin overdoses, three cocaine over doses, and he’s had seizures.

Then he started running, at first to grieve for his lost father who past in Dec. 2012. “I found that the time to be alone with God was when I would run,” he said. “I would cry and run thinking of my father.”

Noriega ran two half marathons within three years. Through running, he also meditated and pray. “By the time I ran my first marathon, it was a healing process for me.” But when he relapsed, he found Midnight Mission to help him get back on his feet. He’s been seven months sober since.

The nonprofit Midnight Mission is located in California and was founded in 1914. Midnight Mission is an organization run by volunteers and has been around for more than 100 years. The staff serve more than a million meals per year. About 250 people live at the organization at a time. The organization focuses on recovery, health and wellness, education, job development, financial literacy, and family reunification.

Often, volunteers come to help women, men, and children who are struggling in life by running a program that involves sharing their passion. That’s what L.A. Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell did in 2012 when he started a runners club with Midnight Mission. As a judge, he often sent people, like former convicts,  to Midnight Mission to better themselves. One day he went to visit, and decided to share his passion for running by starting a running club.

More and more interested people started running with him every Monday and Thursday at 6 a.m. He started setting goals with them: small to big, then half marathon to full marathon. The first international marathon was in Ghana in 2013. Then they ran the 2015 Maratona Di Roma in Rome. The runners club got so much attention that a film crew followed them to Ghana for its “Skid Row Marathon” documentary. In between the scheduled international full marathons, the runners club has participated in smaller local marathons like the Firecracker 10K, the Los Angeles and Pasadeny Rock n’ Roll Half marathon, and the LA Marathon, just to name a few.

Judge Mitchell was restricted by his robe and bench and said that the running club is something he feels he can help. “One act does not define a human being,” he once said, according to Georgia Berkovich, the director of public affairs at Midnight Mission.

Berkovich described Judge Mitchell as an example of someone who followed through in what he believed to help better the community. “If we all do that, we can really change the world,” she said.

Through her six years working at Midnight Mission, she said she has seen alumni of the runners club doing well and bettering their lives. It is all an effort to get participants “building self esteem, being a service, and contribute to their own sobriety,” she said.

The Midnight Mission operate on a small staff, because there are already an abundant of volunteers who create programs that help improve the community through sharing one’s expertise or passion. “We encourage people to share their passion with us and we’re in position to accommodate,” she said. There’s been music, art, and comedy programs. There’s also been school teachers who come in to help them make Christmas cards.

Judge Mitchell took on the opportunity to help men in ways that he can’t while sitting behind the bench.  Many people donated and got involved in his club to show support. “It’s all community support. There is community runners, the judge, and people who donate,” Berkovich said.

For the recent full marathon this year at the 2016 DaNang International Marathon in Vietnam, Noriega was one of the runners.

Noriega said Judge Mitchell was encouraging throughout the training and the marathon, and that he was all about second chances. “No matter what we have done, we are all are capable of showing love,” Noriega said. It was among many things that Judge Mitchell stressed.

Before Noriega’s life with Midnight Mission, Noreiega described himself as someone who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. He said he was someone who his family was embarrassed and ashamed of. He was homeless. “I was one of those guys who you would see pushing a cart outside with trash or talking to himself. Or the guy who is pan handling saying he needs money for food, when really its for alcohol,” he said.

It was one day when his close friend took him to Midnight Mission to help him sustain positive change in his life. “He was always there for me all of time,” Noriega said.

Things got better and he found himself in Vietnam on Aug. 6, the day of the 2016 DaNang International Marathon. “I would never dream of going to Vietnam,” he said. There were 19 Midnight Runners who ran the marathon in Vietnam. They met at the hotel lobby at 3:30 a.m., hopped on a taxi, and arrived to the starting line to start running at 4:30 a.m. Runners were welcomed with loud cheering from supporters and loud music to get them pumped up. There were 450 total runners who came from all over the world to run the marathon.

“We were all pumped up. We were all excited to run. We were all shaking hand and giving high fives. We were telling each other ‘we got this,’” Noriega said.

Although on that day the weather was above 100 degrees with high humidity, Noriega still kept running. He described everyone at the marathon being welcoming, and their motivating energy helped make his experience there a magical one.

Along the marathon trail, Noriega said there were Vietnamese youths handing out water bottles. “They were cheering us on,” he said. With difficult hills and bridges, the high humidity, and serious body cramps, Noriega had to stop by the 20th mile of the 26.2 mile marathon. The ambulance took him to the finish line, where he said he was greeted with water and humble people who made him proud of his accomplishment.

Noriega said that he himself has felt more humble after visiting Vietnam. “Nobody there complains about their way of life, and here speaking for myself, I am spoiled. But yet I do complain about what I do have or don’t have. But now I have a different attitude and I’m more grateful,” he said.

He said he is especially grateful for having his children back in his life. He said his children are proud of him. “From this marathon, I got amends for my kids. I was able to earn their respect,” he said.

Noriega’s birthday was recently on Wednesday, Aug. 24. He said his daughter wrote on her Facebook wall wishing him a happy birthday and expressing how proud she was of him. He said he and his daughter is arranging a time to meet with each other. Noriega has a total of four children and five grandchildren.

Right now Noriega is a program participant at the Midnight Mission. He gives tours to individuals, church groups, and corporations that come in to do volunteer service at Midnight Mission’s cafeteria. For the past three months, he’s been a part of Midnight Mission’s public affairs team. It’s a job training that in turn he receives food, shelter, and clothing.

Noriega plans to continue his education, expanding on his certification he obtained from a health clinic to work with people having mental illness. “My heart’s desire is to work with the community here with skid row, to show love and faith, to get therm out of the situation that they’re in, because I was there one time,” he said explaining that he wants them to perhaps run with him and “To run for freedom, the freedom to love others especially in themselves.”

Fundraising for the next marathon has already started. It will be an international marathon in Jerusalem in 2018.  People can donate on Midnight Mission’s website.

Regardless, what the future may hold for Noriega, there is one thing he is certain about.. “Good awaits me,” he said.

“But even if it doesn’t I’m still believing that no matter what I’m going to stay clean and sober.”

Top