Surprise guest at Cinema Society raises hope and spirits

Judge Craig Mitchell with some members of his running club.

The PebbleCreek Cinema Society, now in its fifth season, promises to bring members “carefully selected films to delight hearts and provoke minds.” That promise was abundantly delivered at the December screening of a riveting documentary, Skid Row Marathon and a special visit from the star of the show!

The film is about Craig Mitchell, a superior court judge in Los Angeles and a one-man crusade helping addicts and ex-cons who live in tents and cardboard boxes on LA’s Skid Row. The worst part of his day job is sending criminals to prison but the compassionate judge came up with a way to have a positive impact; he gets the homeless back on their feet with a running club.

The club got started when one of the defendants whom Judge Mitchell sentenced to prison approached him after his release. He asked the Judge to visit him at the Midnight Mission homeless shelter where he was living. After the visit, the Judge decided to start a running club. He thought that if he could get a few of these men and women into shape and run marathons, the benefits would cross over into their personal lives. Mitchell promises those who stick with the program and stay clean, a free trip to run in an international marathon.

The film follows four of the runners over the course of three years as they battle the ups and downs of addiction and shows how the runners find purpose when they run with the Judge and are treated with respect. Their self-image improves which helps them to get off, and stay off, the drugs and they are able to get their lives back.

Watching the transformation of the four runners is an incredibly powerful experience and clearly demonstrates what just one person can do to help change the world.

Following the screening, film director Mark Hayes and his wife, producer Gabi Hayes, joined Cinema Society Director Andy Friedenberg on stage to answer questions from the audience about the making of the documentary. Mark commented that “the story intrigued me because here’s this guy that, as part of his day job and daily responsibilities, is sentencing people to long sentences and life in prison. Yet, on the other hand, he’s reaching out to those same individuals to help them get back into society and be a part of the greater community. He believes in their potential.” Just then, Judge Mitchell surprised the audience by jogging into the theatre and up on the stage to join the filmmakers and take questions, too.

The Judge, greeted with a standing ovation, told the audience that several hundred people have come through the running club and believes they stay clean at a higher rate than the Mission’s population at large. “Completely separate from them maintaining their sobriety are the relationships and friendships that have developed between the runners, myself, the mentors and the networks,” said Mitchell. Asked about funding, Mitchell said he funds some of the club’s costs out of his own pocket, while family and friends, who know he can’t ask for donations as a judge, “just come forward.”

The trips to marathons abroad – to Ghana, Italy and, next year, Ecuador, “beat any Christmas morning I have ever had,” said Mitchell, “because you just look at the wonder on the runners’ faces.”

If you’re inspired to “just come forward,” and help Judge Mitchell with his running club, you can donate by visiting the “Skid Row Marathon” page: