When University of Illinois track and cross country runner Stephanie Baliga broke her foot during her sophomore year, she was devastated and lost.
“Up until that point, track had dominated my life. It was my complete identity,” Baliga says. “I defined myself as a runner.”
She had reason to. As a freshman at Illinois, Baliga was among the fastest freshmen in the nation and an up-and-coming star for the program. She pursued running with a single-mindedness that, in retrospect, she says was not particularly healthy.
But a broken metatarsal bone forced her from the starting line into weeks of self-questioning.
“I had a period of introspection,” she says. “’What am I? Who am I?’ I really didn’t know anymore, and that was scary.”
Some athletes double down in times of struggle; others give up. Baliga found a different route when a friend urged her to join her on a Catholic retreat.
“I wasn’t religious growing up,” she says. “We went to church, but it was nothing special. Still, I kept going when I went to college. At one point I thought, ‘Why am I still doing this?’”
She says she had a “powerful experience” at the retreat, one that made religion more than a routine, but something real. “It made me take my faith seriously,” Baliga says.
She continued running and competing, but battled injuries the rest of her collegiate career and never regained the elite fitness that once gave her an advantage. But for the first time in years, that wasn’t driving her anyway.
After college, she became a Sister with the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago and began serving at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Humboldt Park. She considered joining a contemplative religious order, one that would require her to give up running, but quickly realized it wasn’t for her.
“There was a battle between me and God to figure out what role running was going to play in my life,” she says. In 2011, she found a way to do use her running in service of her faith.
“I saw all these charities on the [Bank of America] Chicago Marathon page and thought maybe we could do that,” she says. She could continue running, wearing a skirt that hangs below her knees and a bandana on her head. Now, rather than running for herself, she puts in hours of commitment in service to others. She formed Team OLA, securing guaranteed entries to the Bank of America Chicago Marathon for her team members who committed to raising $1,000 each for Mission of Our Lady of the Angels.
In the years since it formed, Team OLA has raised $136,000 and now its annual fundraising accounts for 25 percent of the mission’s budget.
This year, the team has 57 members and a $75,000 fundraising goal. Those dollars help Mission of Our Lady of the Angles provide services to a pocket of West Humboldt Park that is one of the most beleaguered neighborhoods in Chicago.
“Just about every bad statistic you can think of exists here,” Baliga says.
The rates of violent crime, unemployment, juvenile arrests and ex-cons living in the neighborhood are all among the city’s highest. At nearby Orr High School, 92 percent of students live in low-income households. The mission feeds about 700 families a month, providing fresh produce from the Greater Chicago Food Depository as well as toiletries and clothing. It also provides after-school youth sports and other programs for around 900 at-risk youth every month, senior services and community dinners.
Scott Richert, who has run with Team OLA, says the team provides an experience much different than many other fundraising teams.
“This is not a drop in the bucket for them. You can see that this really makes a tangible difference,” Richert says. “My family and I have gone there for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas gift distribution, and it’s really a wonderful experience to see how many people they’re serving. Sister Stephanie pretty much runs those events and they’re incredibly efficient.”
Richert helped residents carry gifts and food home, getting an up-close look at the conditions they live with every day.
“You go a couple blocks, and you look up at the house you’re delivering to and all of the windows are covered with wood, boarded up,” he said. “It’s astounding to see the circumstances of the people they’re serving.”
Though the rates of crime and violence in the neighborhood garner greater attention today, older Chicagoans will recognize the Our Lady of the Angels name for another tragedy. On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire tore through the school, killing 92 schoolchildren and three nuns. The news shook Chicago and lead to a wave of safety enhancements at schools around the city and country.
“It’s still with us,” Baliga says. “We pray for those who died and those who survived every day.”
A monument featuring the names of all who died stands at the entrance to the rectory. One of those names, Sister Mary St. Canice Lyng, has special meaning to Team OLA runner Kieran Maloney, a Frisco, Colorado resident who found Team OLA while browsing the Bank of America Chicago Marathon charity teams.
“My mom’s a bit of an angels fanatic,” Maloney, a Glencoe native, says. “So when I came across the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels team it jumped out at me. Then I read about Sister Stephanie and the history of the fire and I thought, ‘Yeah, this one sounds good.’”
What he didn’t know until he talked to his father, was that Sister Lyng was a distant relative of his. Maloney’s mother, like many devastated by the news of the fire, had gone to the hospital to volunteer to care for injured children.
The team’s mission resonated with him, as did Sister Stephanie. “She is such a cool person, such a bundle of energy that makes the whole marathon experience a lot richer,” he says.
Baliga provides training plans to runners who need it and each team member gets a team shirt, pre-race dinner and a place to stay the night before the marathon if they need it.
Baliga does a lot for the mission and Team OLA, but the former track standout hasn’t exactly lost her competitive streak. When the 26 year old takes her place amongst the thousands of neon-clad runners in the starting corrals on Oct. 11, she’ll don her comparatively modest bandana, Team OLA shirt and black running skirt with her sights set on a new goal.
“I’m shooting to finish in 2:43,” she says.
That would knock 10 minutes off her personal best, and qualify her for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.