What does it take to help a girl find her superpower? Does she need to summon her strength with gold bracelets like Wonder Woman? Or have the ability to harness the wind like Storm? Or find the power to create a powerful spell like Hermione?
Fortunately for today’s girls, accessing their superpowers is as easy as lacing up a pair of sneakers and hitting an open track. Thanks to Girls on the Run, thousands of girls across the country are tapping into their physical strength, improving their self-esteem and creating healthy, lifelong habits. Headquartered in North Carolina and now available in all 50 states, this program makes running fun, accessible and achievable.
Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 by Molly Barker with a group of 13 girls in Charlotte, N.C., but the program was catapulted into the national spotlight in 1998 after an article in Runner’s World. “It was an unexpected boom, said Heather Pressley, senior vice-president of mission advancement for Girls on the Run. “We had people from all over asking us how they could bring Girls on the Run into their schools.”
One Lap at a Time
Girls on the Run offers two programs—the original curriculum focuses on girls in grades 3-5, and the Heart and Sole curriculum is offered to middle school girls in grades 6-8. Each program provides interval training, running milestones and targeted lessons on topics such as self-esteem, confidence and teamwork for each age group over the course of the running season.
“Girls set and track their own personal goals over time,” said Pressley. “It really helps develop that confidence and competence to find their own healthy pace, which then translates into other areas of their lives.”
Throughout each 10-week season, girls are challenged to push beyond their physical expectations and gain new skills that they can carry beyond the field.
“This program is designed to meet girls where they are,” Pressley said. “Some girls start off our program only able to walk one lap and by the end of the season they can walk 10 laps. Other girls come in running and we help them run even faster.”
At the end of each season, every Girls on the Run program site celebrates their girls with a non-competitive 5K race that allows them run as individuals or teams.
“There’s just pure joy and excitement to see these girls crossing the finish line and knowing that they can finish what they set out to do,” added Pressley.
Born to Run
Spring Ridge Elementary in Frederick, Md., is one school using the program to help girls run and soar beyond their goals. Since 2013, nearly 100 girls have participated in the program.
“It’s amazing that some of these girls come in here having never run before and all of a sudden they discover that they have a natural ability to run,” said Salena DeVore, former PTA president and Girls on the Run coach at Spring Ridge Elementary.
From the reluctant runners to the sprinters, DeVore said guiding her girls towards their goals helps them tap into their confidence and learn how to keep pushing forward—even if they fail the first time.
During one of my first seasons, a girl came up to me and said, ‘I’m only here because my mother made me come.’ She showed up at every practice and eventually she started setting her own running goals,” DeVore added. “When she failed to meet her first goal, she collapsed into tears. But I told her that she should be proud of herself for wanting to achieve her goal that much.”
“This program has been a huge inspiration to my girls,” said DeVore.
Just across the river in Arlington, Va., Girls on Run is also making a huge impact at Campbell Elementary School.
“The positive messaging from Girls on the Run about running more, getting outside and eating healthier has been well-received at our school,” said Nathan Zee, Campbell’s PTA President. “It’s really special when the girls realize that they can connect with others through a physical activity and belong to something positive.”
For the past three years, the Girls on the Run program at Campbell Elementary has welcomed 15-20 girls each season and allows the girls to discover fun and engagement with their peers beyond smartphones and social media.
“There’s so much focus on iPhones, iPads, and computers in our classrooms now,” Zee said. “It’s important that we show our girls the benefits of getting outside and exercising.”
Beyond the Track
Aside from growing their physical strength, Girls on the Run participants are also learning to make and maintain healthier choices. One of DeVore’s participants at Spring Ridge lost eight pounds during the course of a season and now asks her mom for better options at the dinner table.
DeVore said the girl’s mom raved, “‘I love this program! Nothing makes me feel prouder than when my daughter asks, ‘Mom, do we have anything healthier [to eat] than that?’”
Zee shared that he sees the biggest impact for his girls is in how they now think about themselves and what they can do with their bodies.
“There is definitely a psychological switch that happens when you know that you can accomplish something,” said Zee. “When our girls cross the finish line at the end of their season, that victory gives them confidence that they can carry down the road for the rest of their lives.”
Girls on the Run is also helping their girls learn how to stay cool under pressure.
“It’s great when I hear parents sharing that their girls are taking a few moments to breathe and then come back after a heated discussion willing to talk,” said Pressley. “This shows us that these skills can have a true impact on their families, their school community and hopefully a long-term impact on how they develop healthy relationships.”
Heart & Sole
Beyond helping girls becoming better runners and students, Girls on the Run participants have big hearts. When one Girls on the Run participant at Spring Ridge Elementary was diagnosed with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis (or ADM), the team fundraised over $700 to help her and her family.
Over the last 21 years, Girls on the Run has helped over 1.4 million girls across the country find their inner strength and confidence. Today, the national Girls on the Run staff is ramping up to offer the program in more locations and to girls of all abilities. Their 2021 initiative includes modifying their curriculum to be accessible to girls with physical and visual disabilities and expanding the program into new communities.
“We don’t ever turn a girl away because of ability or financial need. Our generous sponsors allow us to offer partial and full scholarships to every girl who wants to participate,” said Pressley. “This program was founded on the belief that every girl is full of potential and has unique gifts to offer.
Girls on the Run is also recruiting more diverse coaches to make a bigger impact with each girl.
“Our girls reflect the demographics of the U.S., and we welcome more coaches and volunteers to allow our girls to see women who look like them in leadership roles from their own communities,” added Pressley.
With every step and every lap, Girls on the Run is helping girls tap into their own superpowers for both today and tomorrow.
“This program has been a huge inspiration to my girls,” said DeVore. “Thanks to one of our coaches who is a lawyer, my daughter said, ‘Mommy, I want to grow up and be a lawyer like Coach Brooks.’ It’s just amazing for our girls to see who they want to be in the future.”
Leah Lakins is a writer, editor and founder of Fresh Eyes Editorial Services. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.