Girls On the Run

Girls On the Run

Girls On the Run

Sometimes we runners take our running for granted. So, then, it’s good to be occasionally reminded of some of the benefits running can bring. One such positive outcome is Girls on the Run.

Girls on the Run is a program initiated in North Carolina by Iron Man triathlete Molly Barker in 1996. It employs physical (that is, running) and life-skill activities to help 8-11 year old girls cope with at-risk behaviors. Now a nation-wide program with more than 160 locations in the US and Canada, GOTR was introduced to Michigan in the Holland area in 2000. Currently, there are 19 chapters in the state, serving several dozen counties.

One chapter is Girls on the Run Southeastern Michigan. Danielle Johnson is the council director. A runner herself (“I am!”), she began as a volunteer with GOTR in 2003 and began working full-time in 2005. She explained, “We use running as a tool. It’s secondary, but we use the power of running.”

The girls get lessons in character-building to help them face many of the problems early adolescents encounter. Jackson identified some of the issues: proper nutrition, gossip, how women and girls are portrayed in the media, and boys. Other lessons deal with tobacco and drug usage, personal safety, teen pregnancy, obesity, and anorexia. Two recent additions have been texting and cyber-bullying.

The young girls are introduced to running several times a week, usually after school, to help with their lessons. The program culminates in a 5K fun run, for which all the girls train in hopes of finishing. Johnson said, “Our 5K is an untimed event. It’s just about crossing the finish line. We don’t want the girls to be intimidated, just to set a goal and meet that goal.”

GOTR-SEM encompasses five counties, including Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston, Monroe, and Washtenaw. “We’re at 33 schools this spring,” Johnson noted. “We had over 1000 [1010] girls.”

At the culminating 5K fun run on May 23 in Ypsilanti, “We had more than 2000, maybe 2500, runners and walkers.” Running with the girls were “parents, aunts, teachers, people from the entire community. We even had some [local] elite runners who came out.”

One of the finishers was Ana Nicole Schneider from Lakes Elementary School in Hartland. Ana gets around in a wheelchair. Her mother, D’Ann Schneider, explained, “Ana was born with cerebral palsy. All four limbs were affected.”

At the 5K, Johnson said, “Her team put aside their personal goals to take turns pushing her.” Her coach, Stephanie Salazar, added, “It has been amazing to see these girls welcome Ana into our group and the shift of questions from ‘How will a girl in a wheelchair participate in a GOTR program’ to realizing she is an integral part of our team.”

Ana herself had this to say. “I like being with my classmates and the other girls for something other than school. I like getting to yell really loud to cheer my friends on.”

This year, Johnson was excited about some “community service projects” undertaken by the girls. One group made and ran a lemonade stand to raise money for the local Humane Society. Another put on a talent show to benefit the Veterans’ Administration Hospital.

GOTR-SEM also had “about 300 volunteers this spring.” Including the permanent board members and those helping direct the 5K, that number swells to “about 500 a year.” There are only two full-time staffers. “It’s a volunteer-based organization,” Johnson noted.

Of the volunteers, she went on, “GOTR is not just about the girls, but also the women who train them.” The program is eye-opening for many of the adults. “It’s a life-changing experience.”

Confirming that was Salazar. “It has been rewarding to see the interaction of the girls with Ana and realize that, in addition to her unique physical challenges, she faces the same challenges that all of the girls do with friends, school, etc.” Her girls learned “to pull that ‘negative’ cord out and plug in the ‘GOTR’ cord.”

Johnson expects the local program to grow. Although a number of articles have appeared in national, state, and local publications, she thinks the best promotion has come from “word of mouth. If a family is involved, it wants to get word out to get others involved.” They think that much of the program.

It sounds like GOTR-SEM is a program on the grow!
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