The wide smiles on 24 sweaty, apple-red faces said it all. As they finished their practice 5K, our team of girls, ages 9 through 11, did more than run 3 miles. They proved to themselves - and to their families and spectators - what it means to be a Girl on the Run (GOTR).
She is strong. She is capable. She perseveres. She encourages others. She shows respect to herself, to her classmates, and to the leaders in her midst. And she's plugged in to the "positive cord."
Last year I was invited to write about Girls on the Run (GOTR), a national, nonprofit program that was gaining traction across Maricopa county schools. Their message resonated with me. So much so that when my friend, Heather Lindsey, garnered approval to bring the program to my own kids' Ahwatukee school, Horizon Community Learning Center, I signed on to help coach. Along with my 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, we were off to the races.
Girls on the Run is more than an exercise program designed to offer girls (third through fifth grades) a chance to discover the benefits and joys of getting fit. Curriculum based, GOTR practice time integrates lessons, games and warm-up exercises to help navigate the unique challenges girls face as they approach adolescence.
Twice each week, GOTR teams across Ahwatukee and Maricopa County schools gather to practice. First, volunteer coaches engage the girls in conversation and activities related to the lesson. Topics we cover explore bullying, gossip, peer pressure, body image, managing emotions, and more. I can tell you, there isn't a silent moment. Our girls have had plenty to share.
During practice, girls run laps in preparation for the Fiesta Bowl Half Marathon & 5K on Dec. 4. In the beginning, those long, hot laps seemed daunting. Over time, we watched as the girls set goals for themselves, encouraged each other, stopped to help an injured teammate, and celebrated their progress with GOTR's signature "Energy Awards."
It's been so very gratifying to equip these inquisitive, bright girls with tools to manage physical, social and emotional health. At Horizon, our team of six coaches each offers something unique. Not just running coaches, we're mentors. As mothers, teachers and professionals, we helped the girls understand that even grown women cope with self-esteem, body image, and friendship issues.
Sarah Harvey, GOTR coach and herself a teacher at Horizon, said, "I love being a coach because of the girls, and the connections that I make each time we meet. All of my life, I struggled with weight and self-esteem issues. In school, I was very heavy, and recently lost 80 pounds by changing my lifestyle and finding a passion for running. If talking about my struggles impacts just one girl's life, I would feel blessed."
With GOTR, no girl is ever turned away because of finances. Sponsorships from organizations such as Goody and New Balance ensure scholarships are available for this fee-based program, covering the costs of curriculum, snacks, the 5K entry and medal fees, and more. GOTR also recruits volunteer "Running Buddies," so each girl runs the final race with a mentor to encourage and celebrate her progress.
I can't imagine how I'm going to feel crossing that finish line in December with my own daughter, alongside 23 girls who have captured my heart this season. All I can say is, I better bring tissue.
To learn more about Girls on the Run, visit http://www.gotrmc.org.
• Longtime Ahwatukee Foothills resident Diane Meehl is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the AFN.