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'Girls on the Run' Prepare for 5K Race

Combining physical fitness with a healthy body image, this program is making a difference in the lives of Gwinnett's youngest girls.

The media is full of messages to girls and women about their image, their role and their value.

Most recently, Ashley Judd received the brunt of the entertainment industry's vitriol as they discussed her “puffy” appearance, followed by all sorts of speculation. She took to the pen and composed a sharp, powerful essay asserting not only her own personal dignity and strength, but that of all other women bombarded by society's unrealistic expectations (perpetuated by the media). 

Some organizations, like Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, have worked to develop a counter-culture within the media, while others have developed programs to reach girls at a young age with a positive message. 

Girls on the Run is one of those. 

Founded in North Carolina in 1996, Girls on the Run is a nonprofit that seeks to develop the character and self-respect of young girls through running.

Their mission statement speaks for itself. "We believe that every girl can embrace who she is. Can define who she wants to be. Can celebrate differences. Can rise to any challenge. Can change the world. Can." 

The Atlanta branch - with headquarters in Peachtree Corners - was founded two years later by Anna Hunter after receiving a grant from the Atlanta Women's Foundation. There are now more than 190 programs throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Girls on the Run Atlanta, which serves Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties, has worked with over 6,000 girls since its inception. 

On April 28, around 2,000 elementary and middle school girls and their running buddies will participate in a 5K race through Girls on the Run starting at the West Stride Running Store. 

Stripling Elementary
Each club has a group of 15 girls that participates in the 12-week program. Programs take place twice a year, and the girls meet twice a week during that time. 

“They learn about themselves and their community,” said Stuart Dougherty, the director of Community Outreach. 

At the end of the program, they do a community service project and participate in the 5K race. 

“They also learn how to stand up to bullies and build their own confidence,” she added. 

Abby Williams, a first-year fifth-grade teacher, is a coach for Girls on the Run at . It is her first year teaching, and something that she is excited to be a part of. Together with coaches Nikole Akanda and Anna Trigg, they are going beyond the role of a teacher and educating the girls on positive body image and strength as a girl at a crucial age. 

“There is so much going on right now with peer pressure,” Williams said, “and these girls are third through fifth-grade girls. It's when your body is changing and you're becoming who you are, in a sense. If we can help mold them before they have a chance to listen to the negativity, they will have a way to block off the negative peer pressure.” 

Training for the 5K race is a big part of their activities. The coaches teach them about pacing and encourage them to simply finish and not worry about their time. 

“One or two girls are already way past three miles,” she said. “They see that running is healthy and that it helps your attitude.” 

The meetings last an hour and a half. They begin by drinking water and having a light snack, followed by stretching and a lesson brought by Miss Akanda. 

“She talks to them about the objective of the day, whether it's peer pressure or eating healthy, or being positive and handling emotions,” Williams said. 

The warm-up activity often has to do with the lesson. Then, they run for nearly 40 minutes. As they run, they are supposed to be thinking about the lesson and how to apply it to themselves. As they approach their checkpoint, they tell their coach what they have been contemplating and how it has affected them. 

She has seen a positive impact on girls who have completed the program. 

“My student who did it in the fall still runs to this day,” she said. “She says she runs all the time and loves it so much.” 

Most girls form strong positive relationships with other girls in the group, something that can be a challenge for girls in that age group. 

Summerour Middle
Elizabeth Weaver coaches the Girls on the Run program at . She is also a brand new teacher. While she was in college, she coached Girls on the Run for six seasons. 

“I loved seeing the girls grow,” Weaver said, “and it was incredibly inspiring. It was important to me to start a GOTR program at my school.” 

Weaver was concerned that finances would be an obstacle for establishing the program at Summerour. Nearly 98 percent of the students are on the free/reduced-price lunch program. 

"I knew it would only be possible with scholarship funding," she said.

Girls on the Run provided not only scholarships for all the girls who participated, but a brand new pair of high quality running shoes as well.  Stripling Elementary received the same thing.

"Some females Georgia Tech athletes also came out, which was very inspring for the girls," she added.  

Weaver is a huge proponent of anything to do with Girls on the Run.    

“It gives confidence and self-esteem at an age when that's so important to have,” she said. 

Not only that, but one of the main objective is to prevent the display of at-risk behavior in the future, which, according to the Girls on the Run website, includes substance/alcohol use, eating disorders, early onset of sexual activity, sedentary lifestyle, depression, suicide attempts and confrontations with the juvenile justice system. It provides the tools to make positive decisions.  

One experience with coaching stands out in Weaver's mind.  There was a young girl who struggled with running.  When it came time to participate in the 5K race, she lagged behind.  

“She was the slowest girl in the 5K,” she said, “but she was so proud of herself.” 

Weaver found out later that she slept in her medal for three nights, refusing to take it off.  It instilled an enormous sense of pride and self-respect within her. 

Around 30 girls applied to take part in Girls on the Run this spring, but only 15 could be selected per club. Students were chosen on a first come, first serve basis.

Executive Director Sue Payne, who has been involved with Girls on the Run since 2006, started out as a coach for GOTR at her daughter's school.  

"It creates an environment where there is no evaluation or judgement," she said. "We want to give them the opportunity to talk with their peers and be physically active."

Payne said they are always looking for volunteers, and the April 28 race is an excellent way to get a sneak peek of the program.  The next volunteer meeting will be on May 8. 

To find out if there is a Girls on the Run program in your school or community, visit Girls on the Run Atlanta's website.  You can also visit their Facebook page.  

If anyone you are interested in forming a team or volunteering in some way, contact Executive Director Sue Payne at sue@girlsontherunatlanta.org.  

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