Run, Long Beach, Run

Jorge Rivera takes his message on the road. Photo: Jessica Portner

It’s Sunday at 9 a.m. and that means Jorge Rivera, is decked out in running gear with a camera strapped to his forehead, pounding down a new stretch of sidewalk in the Long Beach. The 41-year-old community activist is on Day 22 of his quest, to run the more than 800 miles of Long Beach streets by October 2014, and record every step along his route.

His mission, called Sole Searching, is twofold: to introduce his running companions to different parts of the city and to talk to residents of every neighborhood, both blighted and affluent, about the benefits of exercise.

Rivera’s routine, which he broadcasts on his website and one social media, is to run 5 miles three time a week on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Often, he is joined by friends and supporters who run, bike, or roller skate alongside him. Some are creating videos online, getting the word out in communities, and tracking his route via GPS around the city.

He is even collaborating with a documentary team to create a film to rally more participants and advertise the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. It’s a diverse city, he said, but very segregated. Rivera has logged more than 100 miles since he kicked off his attempt in May.

“It’s kind of like Forest Gump on a small scale,” said Rivera, who set off that morning from Long Beach Boulevard and Willow Street, an impoverished, commercial strip in a central area of the city. “I have always been about improving the community and I thought this was an avenue for people to become physically active,” he said. “What a great thing to say that I ran every street in the city I live in.”

Rivera, who grew up in South Gate with three siblings, was motivated early on to help others because of the challenges he faced—and overcame—growing up. Rivera suffered physical abuse throughout his childhood from his father, who was an alcoholic. He later became so depressed and was hospitalized after he attempted suicide at age 19 by taking sleeping pills. In the psychiatric facility, he had a life changing experience when another patient he’d been talking with expressed gratitude that he had listened to her.

“I had been annoyed with her at first, but then when she thanked me, I felt like I had purpose, that there was a reason for me not dying. It was a sign.” Rivera went back to school to study philosophy at Cerritos College, and in 1997 received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University, Long Beach, becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree.

After graduating, he started working with an agency that served children with disabilities in foster care. He later switched to real estate, which was booming at the time, with the idea of building enough capital to start his own programs to help the less fortunate. When the real estate market deteriorated, he lost his lucrative salary, and his marriage fell apart.

He started coaching baseball, started a charity fitness group called Community Soles. He decided last year to launch a farmer’s market, the Greener Good, in two Long Beach neighborhoods that limited access to fresh produce.

But this tireless health and fitness activist is quick to point out the reasons for his passion.

According to a November 7, 2012 Community Health Assessment on the Health Status and Conditions in Long Beach, 31 percent of adults in Long Beach are obese. The report also found that 45 percent of 9th graders and 49 percent of 7th graders in Long Beach had not exercised in a park, playground, or open space in the last week.

The report listed the factors that affect obesity include lack of physical activity, poor nutrition, limited free options for exercise activities or programs, lack of education on how to make healthy choices, and whether or not one lives in walk-able and bike-able communities.

Those statistics are what propel Rivera forward as he takes to the streets every week. On that recent August morning, a small entourage—a runner, a roller-skater, and a bicyclist, flanks Rivera. As they head down a dilapidated boulevard of litter-strewn empty lots and fast-food restaurants, beauty parlors, and community centers, they get curious looks and a few waves. Rivera is buoyant as he finishes this 5.6-mile leg.

Joanna Alpizar, 27, wearing purple-and-pink roller skates, said she found out about Sole Searching on Facebook, and was intrigued to participate because researching historic landmarks is her avocation.

Danny Bittner, a 25-year-old senior and geography major at Cal State Long Beach, said he was fascinated by the project from a mapmaking standpoint and as a runner. “It’s important to be on the streets to see the city for yourself, because there are these stigmas about different areas,” he said. “When people exercise together it really builds community.”

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