By Anna Laman
Two world-class distance runners. Bony frames. Lopey strides. Lightning speed. Countless laps. Two or three times a day. Long runs, sprints, weights, physio treatment, recovery. It never stops; for most, it’s a full-time job. After graduating Stanford in 2005, Sara and Ryan Hall succeeded to represent Team USA at the Pan American and Olympic Games, respectively, and it doesn’t stop there. Together they co-founded and run The Hall Steps Foundation to help fight world poverty.
Sara and Ryan continuously strive to make immediate changes in the lives of the less fortunate. The foundation’s standing goal is to help build stronger communities. Together they drive “lifestyle philanthropy” that encourages their supporters to make a personal commitment to their own health and wellness.
In 2014 alone, The Halls Steps Foundation invested $50,000 in micro-loans in East Africa, built a well in Mozambique, donated to Kiva and redid a maternity clinic in rural Senegal.
“The foundation is run solely by a combination of donations, prize winnings, people fundraising at races and individual donations,” Sara said.
The foundation has been entirely volunteer-run since it was founded in 2009, with a full-time staff member in the first year to help get it started. Volunteers and the Internet have been essential to keeping the foundation running.
“We have a lot of volunteers helping out when we travel, thankfully,” Sara said. “Otherwise, all you really need is wifi!”
While Ryan and Sara were in East Africa last summer, one of the biggest areas of need they saw was giving people a head start to work and get themselves out of poverty.
“We saw a lot of people that had a desire to work, there was just a lack of opportunity and start-up funds to begin a business,” Sara said.
The Halls made a $5,000 donation to Kiva to keep loans going and help alleviate poverty. Kiva is partnering with local NGOs to provide loans for those in need to start their own businesses.
“What is amazing is that there is a 98.97-percent repayment rate, and you can then reinvest the funds that are repaid into another person to help give their business a start,” Sara said.
Guided by their faith and seeking a way to use their athletic success in service of others, Sara believes being a follower of Jesus allows her to understand how central helping the poor is to God’s message.
“It is what first had me traveling outside the U.S. and seeing the poverty outside our borders that prompted the charitable work,” she said.
A New York Times article in 2012 explains the way Ryan ties together his passion for running and his faith: “It is while running or thinking of running, Hall said, that he feels most conversant with and dependent on God. And it is through this professional excellence that Hall believes he is best able to show God to the world, to display his goodness and his love.”
Tracing back to where this all began, Sara and Ryan both attended Stanford where Sara, the head director of the foundation, graduated with a human biology degree and Ryan with a sociology degree. The Farm is not only where they first met but also where they learned how to manage sport and a rigorous academic schedule simultaneously.
During Sara’s time as a Stanford athlete, she posted three second-place finishes in the 5000- and3000-meter races, a third place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championship and made an appearance at the 2004 Olympic Trials. After college, she went on to become the 2012 U.S. National Cross Country Champion and a Gold Medalist at the Pan American Games in the steeplechase.
Meanwhile, Ryan was plagued by injuries for most of his time running at Stanford. He witnessed sporadic victories from 2001 to 2004, winning first place in the Stanford Invitational as a sophomore and leading the team to NCAAs as Cross Country Athlete of the Year as a junior. In 2005, he captured the NCAA individual title in the 5000-meter with a time of 13:22.32. Since college, he has risen to fame running for the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, posting the best times in the marathon and half-marathon. He currently holds the U.S. record for the half-marathon.
However, while Stanford was the springboard for the couple’s athletic careers, it also enabled the beginning of their philanthropic endeavors.
Sara first began chasing her philanthropic visions during her time at Stanford through a mission trip to Costa Rica with one of the Christian groups on campus. However, she mentioned that most of her philanthropic work during college was domestic, “like teaching janitors English and tutoring kids in East Palo Alto.”
The Halls’ determination to make a change started locally, reaching out to and interacting with Stanford student-athletes when they lived in the Bay Area in 2012. Jess Tonn, a current senior on the track and field team, said Sara was a fundamental resource and role model for her personally, as well as an integral part of the support team at Stanford.
“I felt so comfortable to reach out to Sara when I needed advice,” Tonn said.
She still remembers when the Halls stopped by practice at the track on their bikes when she was a freshman.
“Not only did this show that they still hold the program close to their hearts, but also how deep the passion behind Stanford track and field runs in those that have graduated,” Tonn said.
As any sportsman would know, being a world-class athlete is a full-time job. Training vigorously two or three times a day takes a lot of effort, physically and mentally. Yet Ryan and Sara have always enjoyed combining both their academics with sporting commitments. Since leaving Stanford, they have simply shifted their academic pursuits to running the day-to-day foundation duties.
“It can be challenging and there are tax filings and things that aren’t fun,” Ryan said. “But making a difference and spending time abroad reenergizes my work.”
The philanthropic spirit has always been one of Sara’s great passions. Back in 2006 when she was a student-athlete, “Runners World” asked, “If you weren’t running, what would you be doing?” She replied, “As soon as I stop, I want to do mission work in Latin America. I really have a heart for it. Ryan and I, as soon as we have the money, want to buy a house in Mexico, to reach out to people in need.”
Today, the Halls may not have a house in Mexico, but they continue to work with numerous foundations to reach out to people in need: Kiva, Kickstart, World Vision, The Kenyan Kids Foundation, Back on My Feet, Global Children’s Movement, International Justice Mission and Global Children’s Movement, just to name a few.
In 2012, The Hall Steps Foundation donated $20,000 to complete the building of the Kenya Hospital. They also donated $50,000 to Iris Ministries for construction of a health clinic and $6,000 to build a well in Mozambique. $2,500 was donated to Girls on the Run Northern Arizona to encourage healthy lifestyles in young girls near where Sara and Ryan train in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Going to physically see the transformation The Halls Foundation makes to the lives of others is a crucial step in their process. Ryan said seeing the hospital in Kenya they funded was an extremely rewarding experience.
“A large percentage of the community showed up, and you could tell how appreciative they were. The community shared stories of lives that had been saved as a result of the hospital,” Ryan said. “It’s then that you know it’s all worth it.”
This story originally appeared as a blog.
Contact Anna Laman at alaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.