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Girls on the Run Transforms Lives Beyond Running

The national organization, celebrating its 25th anniversary, is about more than physical activity.

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Seven-year-old Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Bell had just moved with her family from South Carolina to North Carolina and didn’t know anybody at the new school she’d be attending. Her mother, Anita Parks, explains that though her older daughter played team sports growing up, Lizzie was shy. Parks found Girls on the Run, a 10-week program meeting twice a week that culminated in a 5K run.

Yet, Girls on the Run is no ordinary running program. The nonprofit organization uniquely combines an experience-based curriculum built to help empower young girls with a creative integration of movement that mirrors each day’s focus. For instance, at any given session (pre-pandemic), a group of 15 girls gathers with two trained volunteer Girls on the Run coaches. After casual chitchat, the coaches orient the girls to the day’s theme, or learning objective. The coaches pose questions such as, “What do you think empathy means?” or, “What do you think are comfortable and uncomfortable emotions?”

With the latter, the girls then create a human knot by holding hands, getting tangled up, and then untangled—all the while expressing to each other the emotions that arise while doing so. The rest of the session includes a physical warm-up like you’d find at any run group training: an easy warm-up run, dynamic stretching and strengthening, followed by the run or run/walk workout of the day. Throughout the session, coaches continue talking about the day’s theme with the girls. And at the end of each session, the team nominates one girl within the group for what’s called the “Energy Award,” which goes to someone who perhaps demonstrated the skill that mirrors the theme of the day, or someone who’s typically quiet but had the confidence to speak up. The group celebrates that girl with a cheer.

Girls stand in a line wearing yellow Girls on the Run shirts.
Photo: Courtesy Girls on the Run

“Every lesson creates confidence through encouragement of one another and from their coaches, lets them practice a new skill and see that they can do it, and gives them social-emotional skills they take home with them,” says Dr. Allie Riley, the organization’s senior VP of programming and evaluation. “Core to the program is creating a safe space for the girls’ experiences.”

The training—physical and emotional—takes place over the course of 20 lessons that lead up to a festive and celebratory 5K, with carnival-like booths (hair dye! tattoos!) and families and friends cheering (again, pre-pandemic). “That 5K is about their own improvement and effort,” says Riley. “We’re very protective of that space where, regardless of where you are, everyone gets across the finish line. At the end, the goal is to have found the joy in it.”

“I love the 5Ks!” says Parks, who’s now 13 and in seventh grade. That’s a plural on the “5K,” because she’s repeated the Girls on the Run Program six years and counting.

“I’ve been doing it for a while and I wouldn’t want to stop,” says Parks. Says Lizzie’s mom, Anita: “She grew from being this timid little girl to blossoming into someone who helps others, cares for others. She’s polite. She wants to do better in her schoolwork. Being involved in the group plays a big part.”

Lizzie Bell at a Girls on the Run 5k event
Lizzie Bell at a Girls on the Run 5k event.
Photo: Courtesy of Anita Parks

“It’s helped me with school, how you need confidence to do your schoolwork,” adds Lizzie. “You feel less confident because other people are doing better than you, or you don’t look like everyone else, your hair is different. They teach you about self-confidence and self-power and strength, you know? That really helps because you’re like, wow, were’ all the same, you know? We’re all perfect.” A wise and powerful statement by a seventh-grader.

A 25-Year-Old Organization

In 1996, Ironman triathlete Molly Barker saw a need for a positive, safe space for girls to in their formative years to gather and learn the joy of physical activity. Barker, who has her master’s in social work, utilized her training to develop the program in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The idea caught fire, and the organization was established as a nonprofit in the year 2000. It began incorporating independent evaluations conducted validating program outcomes in 2002 and continued to grow. In 2015, Girls on the Run expanded to offer programs to middle school–aged girls, with themes and lessons hitting on age-appropriate needs for girls grades 6 through 8 in a sister program called Heart & Sole. That same year, the overall program hit its one million mark, having served one million girls since its inception.

In 2018, the program launched a weeklong day camp offering, called Camp GOTR. The year 2021 marks Girls on the Run’s 25th anniversary, having served over two million girls nationwide and with club offerings in all 50 states. There are now 200 councils across the country.

The past pandemic year required some creative adjustments, with the need to develop virtual programming and engage girls through a Zoom screen and with at-home exercise options. But 2020 also marks the year the organization unveiled its disability inclusion and programming with help from the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability. The organization also developed a journal that aids the online program, and that journal will continue to be part of the in-person sessions, once they resume.

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Dr. Riley, who earned her Ph.D. in social work with a specialization in positive youth development in social settings, holds a master’s degree in social work, a master’s degree in kinesiology, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology, has been leading the team developing the Girls on the Run (and, since 2015, Heart & Sole) curriculum for the past eight years. Her team also works with external evaluation from Dr. Maureen Weiss, Ph.D. a professor of psychology and physical activity at the University of Minnesota.

It all sounds very serious, but Dr. Riley will tell you that a major facet of Girls on the Run is making running fun. “The girls are around the age where their bodies are changing. They’re losing that intrinsic motivation, so it’s like, ‘What can we do to make it fun?’ We focus on personal improvement so when they leave us, they keep it up,” she says.

Volunteer coaches undergo extensive five-hour training that, says Riley, is built around coaches understanding their own lens and context so they can support any girl in the space she’s at on any given day.

For both Girls on the Run and Heart & Soul, the themed programming progresses from an individual focus, to having healthy relationships and being part of a team, to the community. Both the elementary and the middle school girls develop and execute a community project. “It’s about the girls using the skills they’ve learned to do something together,” says Riley. All the while, the program is meant to empower each girl’s love of physical activity.

Girls on the Run mentor hugs participant at 5k finish line.
Photo: Courtesy Girls on the Run

Lifelong Impact

The themes and lessons imparted by Girls on the Run stick with a person and have a lasting impact. Just ask 25-year-old Callie Jane Vickers, who started Girls on the Run as a third-grader, participated through fifth grade, then ended up helping coach a younger girls’ group when she was in the seventh grade.

“Girls on the Run definitely has defined me in a lot of ways,” says Vickers, “It teaches you how to set goals.” Vickers, who runs and races regularly, sometimes with her dad (who ran that first 5K with her when she was in third grade), explains how completing the event as a young girl taught her that she could dream big and do something she’d never done before. She points to the time, effort, and build-up she learned. “And if you don’t do it well the first time, there’s room to improve,” she says.

The influence far exceeded running. “Honestly, it introduced me to healthy mental health at an early age and made me very aware of personal reflection,” says Vickers. “I had self-awareness at such a young age…awareness that I saw my friends develop later.”

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“We talked everyday about positivity.” Vickers explains an imagery exercise she was introduced to through the program that she still uses today. “We had an activity where you’d pretend you had a giant brown cord above your head and that was your pump of negativity of everything going on around you. We’d think about it, unplug it, and then you don’t have to think about it anymore.

“There were times in school where I was like, ‘There’s so much negativity,’ I’d think about it, unplug it, and then I was like, ‘I don’t have to be a part of it. I can make a change.’ That was fourth grade!”

Vickers explains how themes ranged from having good eating habits, to how to encourage and empower friends to be mindful of gossip and drama and how to love yourself well—all powerful lessons for young girls.

“Not only did it start great foundations when I was younger, but it’s empowered me,” says Vickers. “It made me realize I was important to people. I can contribute.” During her high school years, Vickers spoke at a Girls on the Run conference after receiving what was called a “Wonder Girl Award.” She talked about what she thought made her a “Wonder Girl.” Vickers says her speech emphasized the notion of joy because, she says, the organization “instilled a lot of joy in me.”

“Girls on the Run helped me be aware that I’m all I need, and there are other things I can help support, or encourage, or be a part of, but I don’t need those things to be whole. I couldn’t have told you that in middle school, but reflecting back on that, I’m like, ‘Wow.’”