Girls on the Run: Setting the pace for good health and confidence

“You throw like a girl. You write like a girl. You play like a girl.”

By Nakesha Moore
Photo by Meagan Iwaniszek

For centuries, asserting you’re doing anything like a girl is an insult. Throughout history, men have used the phrase as a jab at other males. When a male states that another male performs an activity like a girl, it is an attempt to question that male’s manhood. Unfortunately, this behavior is not limited to adults. Visit a playground or school and you are likely to hear boys using similar language. For many, it’s just a matter of boys being boys, no harm intended. However, there are many who disagree.

The mere implication that women are not able to complete a task with the same efficiency as men is a key component of sexism. Not only is this harmful to women, but also to men themselves. When a boy is raised in an environment that belittles the strengths and contributions of girls, it shapes his view of the opposite sex as he ages. As for the young girls who also are subjected to such comments, one only can imagine the impact it will have on their developing sense of self-worth.

Dating back to the establishment of this country, and arguably prior to that, women have not been treated as equals to their male counterparts. Strides have been made, however, during the past century. Women can vote, have careers outside of the home and are more independent than ever. Yet there are still those who use “like a girl” as a derogatory jab.

In 1996, Mary Barker founded the organization, Girls on the Run to provide an experience for young females to separate their identity from the stereotypes that far too frequently capture their spirits around middle-school age. The program originally consisted of 13 girls in Charlotte. Now, more than a million girls participate with a chapter in all 50 states, as well as Washington. Girls on the Run currently has two subsets – one for elementary-age girls and another for middle-schoolers. The program also welcomes back former participants as volunteer mentors. While the core program centers on physical fitness, as a whole the focus is on well-being. Running is known to have therapeutic effects, which ties in the mental health portion. The preteen and teen years can be filled with stress and anxiety. Running can help alleviate that stress. Other topics include nutrition, proper etiquette, effective communication and developing social skills. Consisting of 20 lessons, each session culminates in the girls running a 5k.

Mary Hansen, who oversees the Central District chapter of Girls on the Run, has been an employee for 11 years. Her genuine love of her job has kept her with the chapter. She says she witnessed the transformation of so many girls throughout the years. I spent some time getting to know the members and coaches of one of the groups Hansen oversees – the Robert S. Payne chapter. Hansen works closely with Diane Stratton, often serving underprivileged youth. Stratton says that is why it is important transportation is available for the students.

Riverside Runners, a sporting goods store in Lynchburg, donated a pair of brand new running shoes to each girl. There is a fee for the program itself, but parents may request a scholarship, thereby making the fee affordable. As the 21st Century Grant Coordinator for the school, it was also up to Stratton to select coaches for the girls. She chose LaKerria Carouthers and Rabbiea Manzoor. Before I chatted with the girls, I had a couple of questions for the coaches

Q: What is the biggest benefit you see to the girls you coach?
A: I’d say the growth I’ve seen in them. At the beginning, some of the girls were not that nice to each other, nor were they mean. They just did not really know how to talk to each other. Now they have better communication skills. They can offer their opinions without being negative. That prepares them for social interaction next year and even builds a foundation for their adult lives. – Carouthers

Q: Besides the benefits for the girls, have you noticed any positive changes in your own life since you became a coach.
A: Initially I underestimated the time commitment I was making. So, it took some getting used to. It made me more conscious of my schedule and the need to adhere to the schedule I set, which will be helpful in the future. – Manzoor

Our conversation would not be complete without talking to the girls.
Q: What has been your favorite part of Girls on the Run?
A: Running. Definitely running! And making new friends to run with me. – Azaria Jackson

Q: What has been the hardest thing for you?
A: Sometimes it’s hard to run outside because of my allergies. But the worst part is having to wait for the running part. It’s fun when we talk at our meetings too, but I’d rather go ahead and run. – Justice Kemper

Q: What is the most important thing you have learned?
A: How to avoid conflict. I learned it is ok to walk away from stuff sometimes and it can help you avoid getting in trouble. – Teshaunna Johnson

Q: What do you think makes the program special?
A: Playing games that help us learn. We learned things that are going to help me when I go to middle school next year. – Precious Fleshman

Q: How does it feel when you hear someone say “You run like a girl”?
A: It used to hurt my feelings. I couldn’t understand why doing something like a girl was a bad thing. Not anymore. Now if someone says that I do anything like a girl, I’ll say, “Thank you.” – Savannah Hicks

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