That’s the idea behind Girls on the Run, a national curriculum-based program to inspire young girls to live a joyful, healthy and confident life by teaching a love for running.
Several Haywood County elementary schools have implemented the program in recent years and are having great success in improving girls’ outlook on life while also bringing out the athlete in them at a young age. Hazelwood Elementary had 20 girls participate the first year and 32 girls the next year.
“The one thing I like is the empowerment part — it gives the girls a lot of confidence and even the girls you’d deem non-athletic end up enjoying running,” said Celeste Reyes, a teacher at Hazelwood Elementary who has led the program for two years. “It’s something the girls look forward to every day.”
Over the course of 10 weeks, third- through fifth-grade girls not only train for a 5K race, they develop strategies and skills to help them navigate the unique challenges they may be up against throughout their lives.
“It’s a hard world out there for a girl and this really teaches them to love themselves and help them find their inner beauty,” Reyes said.
Girls on the Run also teaches young girls about responsibility and commitment. By signing on to the program, girls are committing themselves to not missing more than two practices the entire 10 weeks. The girls are also committed at the end of the program to running a regional 5K in Asheville alongside every other GOTR group in Western North Carolina. Reyes said these kinds of commitments and connections have helped bond these girls together in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without the program. That bond is across class and clique lines.
“It’s created a little sisterhood within the group,” Reyes said. “I think it really helps with kindness. I use to teach third grade and now I’m teaching fifth, so I’ve been able to see some huge changes in confidence in those same girls and how they treat others.”
Junaluska Elementary implemented the program for the first time last fall with the help of School Counselor Joy Sollie and fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Mullins. When Central Elementary School closed last year, students were transferred to Hazelwood and Junaluska. Mullins said it was the Central girls who really pushed to start the GOTR program at Junaluska because they enjoyed it so much at Central the year before.
“We had 14 girls in the group and we meet twice a week after school,” Mullins said. “It’s a guided curriculum that teaches self-esteem, issues like bullying, some about dress — it’s well-planned lessons, but way more than we can do in a semester.”
Mullins said many of the girls who participated discovered they had a love of running and were good at it. Her hope is that they will take the GOTR training and continue to stay active in track and field or cross-country in middle and high school.
Fifth-grader Harper Clark said she actually liked running and planned to continue in middle school athletics.
“I learned to just to go to your happy place and stay true to yourself,” she said. “My favorite part of the program was when we sang patriotic songs to people at the soup kitchen.”
Mullins explained that the GOTR curriculum includes a service project students must complete by the end of the semester. Her group of 14 chose to serve a meal at The Open door Ministry in Frog Level.
“That was the most impactful thing we’ve done so far — they cooked and served and sat and ate with them,” Mullins said. “They came back and wanted to do it again.”
In the end, the program is all about showing girls that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to — whether it’s the daunting physical task of completing a 5K race or the mental challenge of staying positive during the trials and tribulations of adolescence.
Most schools do the program during the fall semester. Teachers are always looking for donations to help participants with the financial needs associated with the program, and volunteers are needed as well.
For more information about the program, visit www.girlsontherun.org.