Through Girls on the Run, the life-changing running program for young girls, girls are taught early on that speed is not as important as direction: with a bit of work and a good amount of guidance, pace comes with patience.
“Girls’ on the Run’s philosophy isn’t that girls have to be constantly running, but that they just have to keep moving forward,” said Marne Meredith, a site coordinator and part-time Girls on the Run coach at Chapel Hill’s Ephesus Elementary School.
Incorporated internationally in 2000, the nonprofit initiative has since done just that, steadily picking up the pace with every step as it seeks to inspire third-through-eighth-grade girls to be happy, healthy and confident through a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.
Girls on the Run now serves more than 130,000 girls in more than 200 cities across North America yearly, according to the local Girls of the Run website.
Though present in 49 states, the program was understandably strong in central North Carolina, just up the highway from where founder Molly Barker mentored the program’s first 13 runners in 1996.
“We are serving 795 girls through the Triangle in 57 teams this fall season,” Girls on the Run of the Triangle Council executive director Juliellen Simpson-Vos said. “This is our largest season to date.”
In Orange County alone, Girls on the Run stages programs at Carrboro, Efland Cheeks, Ephesus, Glenwood, Morris Grove, Scroggs, and Seawell elementary schools.
“I think what we’ve seen over the past three years is just an indication of the potential we have,” she added.
Girls on the Run’s 24-lesson curriculum each fall and spring combines 5K training with lessons that inspire girls to become independent thinkers, enhance problem solving skills and make healthy decisions. While the achievement of completing a 5K (3.1-mile) run at the program’s end isn’t the message in and of itself, Meredith said it did reflect the sense of infinite potential she hoped the program instilled.
“I love watching the girls grow over the season,” she said, “especially the ones who start off a little withdrawn or who walk at the beginning. To see those kids finish the 5K is really inspiring.”
Simpson-Vos said it was the message rather than marketing that has been the key to the program’s growth and ongoing success.
“I think the curriculum has driven the program,” she said. “The heart of the program is the character development. The recognition by the girls of who they are, who they can be, and the differences they can make in the world, the changes the parents have seen, and the coaches’ passion for sharing the message: that has just created this positive resonating vibe.
“We’ve really grown by word of mouth. We don’t do a whole lot of marketing of our program. It’s taken off because parents see the difference it’s making in their girls’ lives.”
Girls on the Run’s reputation for accessibility is part of that image, as the program’s generosity goes a long way making those positive influences available to everyone.
“We try to make sure the group is representative of our school population,” Meredith said, noting that nine of 15 GOTR participants at Ephesus are on scholarship “so that the group can mirror the socioeconomic status at our school.”
The Girls’ Southern Season
Fueling that accessibility is the pride and spirit of generosity shared by the program’s participants, friends, families, and partners, who are always eager to extol the program’s virtues. On Nov. 10, Girls on the Run is sponsoring a “Girls and Guys Night In” at Southern Season, featuring guest speaker distance hiker, runner, and author Jennifer Pharr Davis, who holds the record for completion of the Appalachian Trail (46 days, 11 hours). Tickets can be purchased online.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to bring in people who don’t know what Girls on the Run is all about, because it’s just a fun, festive social event,” Simpson-Vos said. “We want people to understand the changes that have happened in our program as well as the positive changes that have happened in our girls.”
Though proud of its heritage, the program, like a runner, continues to look ahead rather than over its shoulder, with sights set on progress.
“Another place we’ve seen interest in the Chapel Hill area is in our middle school program, Girls on Track,” Simpson-Vos said. “Once that curriculum is in place, it will help us reach an entirely new group of girls. Also, internationally, they’re looking at the potential for summer camp programs and also ways to reach girls as early as age 5 or 6.”
In the short-term, however, Girls on the Run is already eying its spring 2014 season, which begins online registration on Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. at www.gotrtriangle.org.
Girls on the Run is already seeing where its past will begin informing its future, however.
“We’re seeing a number of girls who started with founder Molly Barker’s program in Charlotte, and they’re now students at UNC and coaching our girls today,” Simpson-Vos said. “We hear from so many parents who say that they wish Girls on the Run had been around when they were growing up, and we’re actually starting to reach that point where nobody will have to say that.”