When “Ms. Jones,” a teacher at a Denver-area middle school, noticed one of her pupils struggling to solve a math problem, she asked the young girl if she needed help. “No,” the student replied. “If I can run a 5K, I can figure it out.”
The student, it turns out, was one of the 6,000 who participate annually in Girls on the Run of the Rockies, a nonprofit organization that over a 10-week period of twice-weekly, after-school sessions incorporates running with “dynamic, interactive lessons” to help elementary- and middle school-aged girls enhance their physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being.
In other words, to become joyful, healthy and confident—with the ability to look at both sides of a coin, to know that it’s OK to have an opinion different from another’s and to have the wherewithal to power through, or solve, a difficult problem.
The organization is headquartered in Greenwood Village and is one of 225 chapters, or councils, of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Girls on the Run International. Since its start in 2005, it has served 35,000 girls from third through eighth grades.
Founder and executive director Lisa Johnson started the nonprofit with 90 girls at four schools in the greater Denver area. Today there are teams at some 300 schools stretching from Fort Collins to Walsenburg. Girls on the Run of Western Colorado, with headquarters in Grand Junction, serves Western Colorado, Eastern Utah and Northern New Mexico.
Researchers throughout the world have said it for decades: aerobic exercise such as running is a proven way to reduce stress, improve heart health and alleviate symptoms of depression.
And the earlier one starts, the better.
As Johnson points out, “A girl’s self-esteem starts to drop at age 10, so it’s important that we get to them before that. Even at 8 or 9 years old, the world is coming at them fast. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, the number of television channels … all of that can make them feel like they’re missing out or not keeping up, which in turn can lead to depression or low self-esteem.”
Coaches, who are carefully screened volunteers, act as mentors, letting the girls know that they do have a voice and if it can be heard it can make a difference, an impact, on the world. “They have the girls ask who am I as a person? What are my values and beliefs? How can I be a good friend and listener and how can I show gratitude?”
The lessons are conveyed through games like this one: The coach will say “It’s important to never tell a lie,” and then the girls will run to signs that read “I agree,” “I disagree” and “Undecided” and tag their answer. Then they run back to the starting point and discuss why they chose the answer they did.
Once, “All but one girl tagged the ‘I agree’ sign,” Johnson recalled. “Her rationale for choosing ‘I disagree’ was that if a robber broke into her home and her brother was hiding in another room, it was OK to lie to the robber and say he wasn’t home.
“Her answer was not the same as everyone else’s, but it was important to let her know it was OK to have a different opinion, that she should be true to herself and not feel bad because she felt that way.”
When the girls run laps, coaches can send them on their way with a game called Fill in the Blank. “They’ll tell the girls to think of things like ‘When I’m happy, I ...’ and then fill in the blank.”
“It’s amazing the things that come to you when you’re running,” Johnson said, adding that during her high school years she found she could write a whole term paper in her head while running.
Sixty percent of the program’s participants are from low-income families. Those whose families are able to pay the $170 membership fee do so. Those who can’t afford the fee are eligible for a either a reduced rate or one of the $400,000 in scholarships awarded each year.
Athletic abilities range from first-time runners to those who, Johnson says, are “super-duper” active in sports.
The weekly meetings begin with quiet time, where the girls enjoy a snack and fill their water bottles before going outside for the running-based activities. Each week the length of the laps they run increases, building up to the grand finale: a celebratory 5K run.
“The one thing girls love is that GOTR activities are non-competitive,” Johnson says. “We’re about setting your own goals and building on them.”
Success is measured in the response from teachers and parents. “They tell us that behaviors improve, confidence increases and struggles become easier to work through.
Christa, the mother of three Girls on the Run participants, expressed her gratitude in a note posted on the organization’s website. “I really love this program because it helps the girls realize you don’t have to be a supermodel to move your body and have a healthy relationship with your body. As my oldest enters 8th grade, I see how these lessons from GOTR have impacted her and her body image. Such valuable lessons for our girls.”
In the end, Johnson says, it’s all about lighting a spark and keeping it lit.
Girls on the Run of the Rockies
7000 E. Belleview Ave., Suite 130
Greenwood Village, CO 80111
Vision: (To build) a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.
Joanne Davidson’s first exposure to Girls on the Run of the Rockies was when one of the teams met at Steck Elementary School, a block from her home in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood. Her afternoon dog walking schedule seemed to coincide with the time the youngsters were doing warm-up activities on the playground and their happy laughter helped put a spring in her step.
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