By Andrea Thomson Viner

Since Girls on the Run (GOTR) launched in Eastern Iowa in 2007, the nonprofit organization has helped teach empowering lessons and an appreciation for exercise to thousands of girls in grades 3-8.

The program uses running as a “focal point to teach girls how to successfully navigate life,” according to Esther Baker, Executive Director of GOTR of Eastern Iowa.

“Girls at this age are bombarded with so many messages of what they should be, what they should look like,” says Baker. GOTR aims to counteract those often negative messages with positivity, while encouraging physical activity and healthy body image.

Each session runs for ten weeks. Girls in grades 3-5 learn lessons about standing up for themselves, positive self-talk, appreciating their gifts, and more. Girls in grades 6-8 experience a different curriculum that’s geared toward issues that middle schoolers face. Their lessons include asking for help, setting boundaries, dealing with relationship issues, and stretching their comfort zones, among others. All of the girls also work on self-confidence and teamwork while preparing mentally and physically throughout the ten weeks to complete the celebratory 5K run at the end of the session. Each girl decides on her own personal goals, with guidance from coaches, at the beginning of the session and works toward them during the ten weeks. The groups at each site do a community service project as well. “We’re trying to encourage the girls to be strong women and [good] citizens of the world,” says Baker.

For the 2016-2017 school year, GOTR of Eastern Iowa will be at 36 sites in six counties. In 2015-2016, 569 girls participated in the fall session, with 584 girls experiencing the spring session. Baker anticipates even more girls enrolling this year. GOTR does offer financial aid for girls who can’t afford the program fee. This aid is provided by individual donors and corporate sponsors.

GOTR grows “fairly organically,” says Baker. Often a group of parents or teachers at a particular site (a school) decides they want to bring the successful, nationwide program to girls at their school.

There are also many opportunities for community members to get involved with the program. “We’re always looking for volunteers,” says Baker.

Volunteer coaches assist the staff coaches at each of the GOTR sites. The celebratory 5K run for GOTR of Eastern Iowa will be held on November 13 in Iowa City. Volunteers help make this event successful, whether they assist with registration, set up the course, or staff the finish line. Additionally, each girl runs with a buddy for safety reasons. Often it’s a parent or an older sibling, but if a girl doesn’t have a book, a volunteer can step in. The program requires these volunteers to be women at least 18 years old. They’re matched with a girl based on speed. For example, some girls walk the 5K, while others plan to run the whole way, or run and walk intermittently.

Coaches and staff regularly see positive changes in program participants. One girl had been bullied by some boys in her class about her weight. She told her teammates and coaches about the bullying and, without prompting from the adults, all of the girls got up and gathered her in a group hug, telling her how beautiful she is.

At another site, the coach knew of a girl who could benefit from the lessons of GOTR. The girl had issues to deal with at home and low self-esteem. She didn’t have many friends and had never participated in an after-school program. The coach talked to the girl’s parents about registering her for GOTR, and they agreed. At first she sat outside the group, not participating or talking. The coach tried to pay her a compliment, but the girl dismissed it with a self-degrading comment. As the season progressed, though, the girl started speaking up more. She moved into the main circle with the rest of the girls and started running and making friends with her teammates. On the last day of the season, at the end of the practice as the girls were heading out, the coach said to this girl, “You know you’re awesome, right?” And the girl flashed a huge smile and said, “I know!” She gave the coach a hug, and went out the door.

“Multiply that by over 1,000 girls each year,” says Baker, “and that’s the power of Girls on the Run!”

Girls on the Run (GOTR) •

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