Standing in a circle, athletes from all ages are cheerful and energetic as Jackie Hoffman warms them up for a two-mile-run or one-mile walk in Garfield Park. Loudly and proudly, each athlete introduced themselves and ranked their energy levels — an average “nine point five” for the group.
“I’m always at a ten… Let’s get it!” Hoffman said to more than two dozen West Siders outside the Garfield Park Gold Dome field house on a recent Saturday.
Hoffman, whose energy and presence is hard to beat, is front and center. Standing at six-foot-two-inches tall, he rocks white athletic shorts, white and green Lululemon socks and a black athletic t-shirt that reads Peace Runners 773. It is the name of the movement he founded out of love for his community. It is also his life mission. He smiles and personally greets everyone, giving hugs and “heys” to newcomers and regulars.
“Know that the work that we’re doing and showing up for this community is really creating positive impact,” Hoffman told the group who held their hands up high in the circle. “Thank you for showing up today, let’s get a ‘peace runners’ on three.”
“One, two, three…”
A loud “Peace Runners, woo!” echoed as hands shot up to the sky.
The group’s presence in this iconic West Side-park has become a Saturday morning staple. A longtime Garfield Park resident and athlete, Hoffman started Peace Runners 773 as a way “to show up for his people.” What started two years ago as a Facebook post inviting friends to run a Juneteenth 5k race evolved into nonprofit that advocates for health equity for West Siders.
Every Saturday, Hoffman and his team gather to run at Garfield Park. Their presence — running, walking, doing yoga, meditating, learning about nutrition and mental health — is a way of reclaiming neighborhood spaces, he said, and a “a beautiful” example of Black and brown people taking a stance for their health and their communities.
“Taking space to me was going into the parts of the community that people don’t want to go to,” Hoffman said, explaining the group often runs through streets and corners typically known for violence. “And being visible in those areas to provide that level ‘people seeing good people using this space.’”
As every Saturday, on Aug. 26, athletes had a choice to join a two-mile-group run or a one-mile-group walk. Regardless of their fitness level, every person who joins is an athlete as they’re “showing up for themselves.”
Mattie Buckley, who has lived in Austin for nearly 40 years, hit the one-mile-trail. At age 62, Buckley is an example that it’s never too late to start one’s fitness journey. About a year ago, Mama Hoffman, Hoffman’s mother, invited her to join a walk with the Peace Runners 773.
“A minute has never been so long until you start running,” Buckley said as she remembered the first time she started running.
Walks turned into runs – a 5k run and regular miles-long-runs. Earlier this summer, she was one of 45 members of the group who completed the half marathon, 25 of them for the first time in their lifetime.
“I was not happy with my time the first time so I’m running it again,” Buckley said. On Sept. 24, she will run the Life Time Chicago Half Marathon, presented by sportswear company Hoka. It is “scary”, but she knows she can count on the Peace Runners 773 community to show up and cheer.
Next Oct. 9, 16 members of the Peace Runners 773 will run the Chicago Marathon, adding hundreds of miles to the 9,000-mile-trail collectively ran by the group so far this year. To the long trail, Peace Runners 773 will also add miles from West Side community events like the upcoming Austin 5K or the Lawndale 5K. At every step, is Hoffman’s “West Side community.” With support from community leaders like Shantel Franklin from Austin, Peace Runners 773 invites friends, family and community members to join, organizes activities to show up and cheer at runs, and keeps the movement going.
Hoffman’s success in the last two years is a testament to the “heart” he puts into his mission. He is a second-year Chicago ambassador for athleisure brand Lululemon. A founder and executive director of his own nonprofit. A marathoner and lifelong athlete. And most of all, he is a leader always ready to show up for his people.
“I started off like ‘I’m on this mission to get people walking and running in our communities,’” Hoffman said. “And at first, I remember I had to tell myself how important it was.”
Hoffman has learned to be “the voice in a room” advocating for his community, a change from his days when he dreaded public speaking. A graduate of the Community Leadership Fellows program, Hoffman now sees his voice is echoing loudly. Earlier this month, he was honored for his community work by the female basketball team Chicago Sky, co-owned by 13-time All-Star basketball icon Dwyane Wade.
He shared the honor with his mother, who is his inspiration and example.
“You always say I’mma buy my mom the biggest house,” Hoffman said, adding he is not there yet. “I think that experience of having her go on a WNBA court and have that recognition, that was special for us. She held my hand so tight. She always tell me she’s so proud.”
Yet, his journey has not been short of challenges. Upon graduating college, Hoffman had to reframe his sports career. With a high performing high school and college football career, Hoffman hoped to become a professional football player. He made it as far as a workout with the Chicago Bears, but no contract followed.
Instead, he took his love for sports to improve his community and continues to grow in his journey as a nonprofit leader, athlete and mentor.
“Just by being from the community and living in the community, I know what the community needs,” he said. “We talk about health equity and we talk about resources, but I want to be able to be that person to bring those resources to our communities because some people are not willing to go drive to another place to go get those resources.”
Hoffman has brought healthy eating, yoga, meditation and mental health resources to the weekly run sessions, raising awareness about holistic health in a historically underserved community. There is a 12-year gap in life expectancy between a person who lives in Chicago’s Loop and their counterpart on the West Side, according to a 2021 report by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
“Our thing is to always recruit and get as many people involved in our programming, so we can increase the life expectancies in our community,” he said.
Peace Runners 773 has also become a space to share valuable information and knowledge with West Siders. The group recently hosted a financial literacy and housing informative talk before a running session. Amid athletes in their athletic gear, experts shared valuable information to improve West Siders quality of life and allow them to stay in their communities amid pressing gentrification. More resources, from financial literacy to mental health, are yet to come, Hoffman said.
“If I can get them outside of the house, then we can get them to learn something,” he said.