This past fall, Tracy Oliver signed up her daughters, Olivia and Emma Shuster, to take part in Satchel Ford Elementary School’s first Girls on the Run group. The nonprofit after-school program for third through eighth grade girls combines running with lessons inspiring them to recognize and honor their individual strengths and talents and to celebrate their inner selves.
“It’s a great program,” Tracy says, “and I wanted my girls to have the experience. A couple of other moms and I worked with the local chapter of Girls on the Run to get the program started at our daughters’ school. We even coached it ourselves.”
A member of Girls on the Run proudly high-fives her running buddy after completing the 5k at Heart and Sole.
Olivia, 10 1/2, and Emma, 9, were excited about the program, too. “I love running,” Olivia says, “and I thought this would be a good way to get my confidence higher and make new friends.” Emma says, “I thought it would be a good experience for me to run and to learn to deal with negative thoughts and problems.”
A runner herself, Tracy understands the benefits of running for the whole person – mind, body and spirit – and she wanted her girls and their peers to learn about these benefits firsthand. “We all know the positive effects of exercise on our physical and mental well-being,” she says. “Introducing girls to this natural resource early on is important in helping them build strong foundations to withstand the adversities that await them in adolescence and early adulthood.”
Emma and Olivia Shuster with Tracy Oliver, their mom, after the Girls on the Run 5k at Saluda Shoals.
Mary Lohman, council director of Girls on the Run Columbia, believes the program is good for girls because it recognizes their value and strength as individuals. “We give them a place to be goofy and have fun, at an age where they often feel pressure to mold themselves to others’ expectations,” she says. “We also provide a safe space to talk about challenging issues they may be experiencing and help them build the skills needed to face those issues.”
Girls on the Run was founded by Molly Barker, a Charlotte native who began running at the age of 15 when she found herself stuck in what she calls her “girl box” – that place she says many girls go around middle school when they begin to morph into what they think they should be instead of being who they really are. “I desperately wanted to fit in with the popular crowd,” Molly says. “The years I spent trying to mold my thoughts, body, lifestyle and being into what that girl box required were extremely painful. So I ran. I’d put on my running shoes and head for the woods, the streets, wherever my feet would take me. I felt strong. Beautiful. Powerful.”
Nearly 17 years after she first started running, Molly finally climbed out of that box. Understanding the important part running played in her breakthrough and drawing on her expertise as a counselor and teacher and on her research into adolescent issues, she created Girls on the Run. In 1996, she delivered her first curriculum to 13 girls in Charlotte.
“Molly is an incredibly genuine person,” says Mary. “She is very open and honest, and she has an innate ability to connect to the people around her and recognize their gifts – especially girls. Her openness about her own struggles and the strength it took to overcome them is an inspiration to children and adults alike, as is the passion and drive she showed in creating Girls on the Run and helping it grow into an international program.”
In 2005, faculty members of the University of South Carolina Exercise Science Department brought Girls on the Run to Columbia. With the help of the YMCA and local schools, it quickly expanded, and in the spring of 2012, Girls on the Run Columbia boasted 404 participants on 33 teams.
Girls on the Run teams meet twice a week for 12 weeks. Each lesson begins with a “Getting on Board” activity, which helps the girls wind down from the school day and shift their focus to the day’s topic. For one lesson, an assigned activity requires the girls to keep a balloon aloft for as long as possible. Without really realizing it, the girls work on their communication and teamwork skills in order to pass the balloon among themselves and not let it touch the ground. Afterward, coaches lead the girls in a “Processing” question and answer session where they discuss how the warm-up activity applies to the day’s lesson. Possibly the most important part of the curriculum, processing gives the girls a chance to talk in depth about how the lesson applies to their own lives.
Members of the Girls on the Run team at Pineview Elementary work on their spring 2012 service project.
Stretching follows, then the workout, where the girls perform a variety of running activities that incorporate a game or team goal. At the start of the season, many girls think there’s no way they will be able to run 3.1 miles in just 12 weeks. But the structure of the workouts keeps it fun and engaging, and before long they find running isn’t so hard. At the end of each session, the girls form a circle and give out energy awards to each other, usually in the form of improvised cheers. Coaches are told to ensure that each girl is recognized at some point during the season, but the girls are at that great age when they are naturally very inclusive of each other, regardless of their differences.
On an age-appropriate level, the Girls on the Run curriculum covers such topics as making good decisions, analyzing media messages, examining stereotyping and discriminatory behavior and recognizing the importance of positive self talk.
“It helped me a lot when we talked about how to handle peer pressure,” says Olivia.
Tracy, who is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist, appreciates that Girls on the Run is preventive, not just in terms of physical health but also in terms of mental health. “Girls are dealing with bullying, peer pressure, stress and anxiety to degrees that most of us didn’t experience at such an early age,” she says. “I think programs like Girls on the Run equip them with the tools to deal with these serious issues, to develop healthy habits and friendships, and to develop a sense of confidence through knowledge and accomplishment that can help them through difficult times.”
At the end of the season, the girls participate in a non-competitive 5k race. The fall race is held at Saluda Shoals, and the spring race is a 5k that is part of the Heart and Sole Women’s 5-Miler. “I liked running the 5k,” says Olivia. “I felt very proud of myself.” Emma agrees, saying, “I was happy because I had accomplished something.”
Mary says that one participant’s parent explained it best when she said the race at the end was a badge of accomplishment her child will wear forever. “Training for a 5k isn’t easy and, for many people, it’s something they thought they would never be able to do,” she says. “But at Girls on the Run, the girls learn that setting a goal and working toward it yields real results – and that you can have a lot of fun when you’re working toward that goal with friends.”
To join, donate or start a Girls on the Run team, contact Mary Lohman at firstname.lastname@example.org, (864) 723-1962, or visit www.GOTRcolumbia.org for more information.