After fighting off a rare form of cancer, Heidi Boynton formed a running club for young girls.

Heidi Boynton_MMRC

Heidi Boynton is a cancer survivor who initially started running as a way to get out of the house after the birth of her oldest son.

15 years ago, when Heidi received a call diagnosing her with a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer, she learned firsthand the connection between challenging the body and a person’s will to fight. After a year of fighting the disease, she finished her first triathlon. Inspired by the running community, she founded the Mini Mermaid Running Club, an organization that allowed Heidi to share that same sensation she felt when putting her feet across the finish line.

The national club trains girls ages 5-15 to run a race and teaches them not to focus on being first or running the fastest, but rather on finding their own pace.

We chatted with Heidi about the Mini Mermaid Marathon Club and where she finds her motivation to keep moving.

Women’s Running: What would say is the main mission of Mini Mermaid Running Club?

Heidi Boynton: Beyond our mission statement, we believe MOVING our bodies uniquely lends itself to hearing our true voice. How to silence the shaming voices and turn up the volume of compassion and empathy is what women and girls find through our program.

The ability to know you matter, to know that because you are alive—you deserve to try new things, to learn how to express your feelings—this is what we stand for and what we hope to bring to the girls who are a part of Mini Mermaid Running Club. Running is a vehicle for these conversations and it’s a beautiful, easy way to introduce movement.

WR: Why is it important for young girls to work on self-confidence at a young age?

HB: Self-confidence is a result of learning compassion for oneself, and it comes from knowing you can make mistakes and from understanding you don’t have to be perfect or look perfect to have value.

Today, girls have more opportunities than ever, thanks to our moms, grandmas, and great-grandmas, but they are fighting through a sea of competition and trying to navigate a world of 24/7 exposure through social media. Up to 24 percent of girls 12 to 15 years are hurting themselves. We can change this. Teaching girls to move their body and train for something that may seem out of your reach, helps them realize they can reach that goal and many others. And that is what confidence looks like—knowing that the finish line is just the beginning.

Related: New Program Empowers Young Women Through Running

WR: What was it about your cancer diagnosis that motivated you to start Mini Mermaid Running Club?

HB: I wasn’t an athlete when I was younger and actually, I didn’t find running until after the birth of my first son, so for me running has always been a balm for my soul. When I run, I hear my voice without any distraction, I hear my heart and what it longs for, I hear my breath and it reminds me of life with all its struggle and joy and beauty. I was running very consistently when I was first diagnosed. Running was my fuel, my church, my peace and quiet in the midst of a very full, busy life with two young boys. The day I had to stop running broke my heart, it was the very visceral realization that I was sick.

In the fall of 2009, Megan (co-founder MMRC) approached me about bringing a running club to her daughter’s school, a school with a very high percentage of students living at or below the poverty line. Most of the girls in her school couldn’t afford sneakers, let alone the cost of an afterschool program. As I wrote that curriculum, I could feel the power of running threading its way through. All of the emotions I’ve felt over the years and the lessons I’ve learned landed on those pages.

Having a health crisis definitely gives you a new set of glasses to look through. Being sick has given me a sense of urgency as in life is short, helping fuel my passion to give the opportunity for every girl and woman to know they are wonderfully, beautifully, amazingly strong just the way they are.

Heidi Boynton running

WR: There are several programs out there for young girls—why is yours different?

HB: You’re right, we are in good company! MMRC is unique in many ways, mainly our character-driven curriculum and focus on coaching girls to shift their internal experience and the way they interact with the world around them. We’re really adamant about teaching our runners to have open, authentic conversations about their thoughts and feelings, while discovering self-compassion and empathy for others.

With MMRC, the goal is clear: to get every child across the 5K finish line and arm them with the physical and mental tools needed to run 3.1 miles. We help them find their happy pace, which is an important step to lifelong-balanced fitness.

WR: If you could have every girl walk away from your program with one thing, what would it be?

HB: I would want her to know that she matters and because she matters, she has a voice. I am proud to use running as a way for girls to find their unique strong voice. This is what’s driven me to a career in running and something I was recently reminded of when I humbly accepted the Toyota Everyday Hero Award at the espnW Women + Sports Summit. That encouragement to give back in ways both big and small is the message I want these young ladies to have. I want them to discover that moving their bodies can foster passion and vision to impact the community and the world around them. And that’s what running is really about – being your own Everyday Hero.

Related: 3 Reasons Why Every Goal Setter Needs A Girl Squad