When Michelle Saunders laces her shoes and awaits the starting gun alongside approximately 30,000 runners at the 122nd annual Boston Marathon April 16, it will represent the fulfillment of a goal she’s harbored since 2012, when Saunders first became a runner. “This is the Super Bowl of running,” says the Providence, Rhode Island, human resources director, who is competing in her fourth marathon but making her debut in the world’s most prestigious 26.2-mile race. “I’m nervous, but so excited.”
Dan Futrell has completed seven marathons, including three Boston Marathons. But Futrell, vice president of operations for a national affordable housing nonprofit based in Boston, says this one will be different. “The previous times I was a free agent,” he says. “This year I’m going to be raising money for a program I believe in.”
For Saunders and Futrell, this year’s event marries two of their biggest passions: running and supporting Year Up, which seeks to bridge the Opportunity Divide by empowering young adults to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education. Year Up was one of only 13 new organizations named by principal sponsor John Hancock as a partner of the 2018 Boston Marathon Non-Profit Program through a highly competitive bidding process. John Hancock has been a Year Up partner since 2003, hosting 87 young adults as Year Up interns in Boston, New York City, and Atlanta. The company has also hired 37 Year Up alumni.
Year Up has set a goal of $10,000 per entry, and Saunders and Futrell, who will wear officially branded Year Up runner bibs, have already begun the process of securing commitments for Year Up Providence and Year Up Greater Boston, respectively. But beyond what the runners raise, Year Up’s admission into the select marathon charity group brings the potential for increased national visibility and fundraising for years to come.
Year Up already enjoys significant corporate support both in Providence, where Saunders is based, and Boston, where Futrell resides. “Virgin Pulse is proud to support Year Up Providence and the incredible work it does to help young adults transition into meaningful careers,” says David Osborne, CEO of the company, a leading provider of technology solutions that promote employee engagement and wellbeing, which moved its global headquarters to Providence last year and has hired several Year Up graduates. “Year Up plays an important role in connecting growing companies like ours with high-quality and high-potential talent.”
When she delivers speeches to Year Up students, Saunders discusses what it means to grow up under challenging circumstances. “Some people are born with a silver spoon, some are born with an aluminum spoon, and some are born with no spoon,” she says. “And sometimes you get a jagged spoon that might cut you in the mouth, which is my story.”
Saunders experienced her share of struggles growing up in the foster care system, but her trajectory changed dramatically through the support of caring adults, and ultimately she was adopted. She went on to earn a Master of Arts in Adult Education from the University of Rhode Island and is currently director of organizational effectiveness and learning at Ocean State Job Lot, a retailer with approximately 5,000 employees in the Northeast. She was honored last year as a “Woman to Watch” by Providence Business News.
In 2006, while looking for ways to diversify her company’s workforce, Saunders discovered Year Up and was immediately drawn to its mission of bridging the Opportunity Divide among young people through workforce development. Since then she has been a highly active volunteer for Year Up Providence as a nine-time mentor, supervisor of Year Up interns at her workplaces, and guest speaker. She has seen Year Up’s impact on young adults who were previously connected to gangs, or who came from high schools with among the highest dropout rates in their district. Saunders also saw how Year Up contributed to the personal and professional growth of her younger brother, who went through the program in 2012.
“Many young people grow up without any thought that they are going to work in an office one day, or a connection to any vocation,” Saunders says. “Year Up gives students that vocational identity by connecting them with companies they wouldn’t otherwise experience. And for the many businesses that have partnered with Year Up Providence, it’s a win-win because they get trained professionals at an internship rate whom they can hire and grow within their companies.”
As a former staff member, Futrell got an up-close view of the difference Year Up makes in helping young adults grow and take advantage of professional opportunities they might not otherwise be offered. “There are many people with talents that aren’t being utilized as much as they could be — in some cases talents they wouldn’t even know they had if it weren’t for someone giving them an opportunity,” Futrell says. “Year Up sets these young adults up for success by helping them understand what’s required of them in a professional environment, giving them the skills they might not yet have, and helping them sharpen the tools they do have.”
Futrell’s passion for Year Up stems from firsthand knowledge of the importance of providing underserved young people with opportunities they might not otherwise see. “In my own childhood I had people who looked out for me much more than they needed to,” he recalls. Initially raised by a mother who struggled with addiction, Futrell spent time in the foster care system but went on to graduate from college with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration. After serving for five years in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer — where he held leadership positions and twice was deployed to Iraq, becoming a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal — Futrell attended Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a Master’s in Public Policy.
“I was a kid who faced several forks in the road that ended in very different spots, but throughout the process there were people who stepped out of their daily lives to help me,” he says. “I hope to have that same positive impact on others.”
Futrell found a way to do that through Year Up, where he worked for two years as director of operations and strategy and later as director of growth strategy. After leaving the organization in 2014 he was determined to stay connected, serving as a mentor before seizing the opportunity to support the organization through his entry in this year’s Boston Marathon.
“The country needs more programs that give young adults an opportunity to pull themselves out of their current circumstances,” Futrell says. “The Boston Marathon is a great chance not only to raise awareness about Year Up as a program that is doing that, but also to raise awareness about the issue of young adults who are highly skilled and have the propensity to learn quickly and add value, but need opportunities that capture their true potential.”