Girls on the Run gets girls running, healthy and happy

They are girls, and they run. They are Girls on the Run, and the running they do takes them not only across physical finish lines but mental and emotional ones too. While the ultimate goal of Girls on the Run is to finish a 5K race, the purpose is greater.

"We always tell the girls it's not a running program. It's a character building program, a program to learn about how to take care of yourself and set goals," says Dana Carley, a Girls on the Run volunteer coach and mom to Grace, an 8-year-old third-grader from Bay City.

Thousands of girls from all over the United States get involved in Girls on the Run each year. They are paired with volunteer coaches who help them work on their bodies by training for a 5K and their minds by talking about--and showing--them how to eat right, be kind, reject peer pressure and more. The latest chapter, Saginaw-Bay County Girls on the Run, crossed into mid-Michigan three years ago. There is Mid-Michigan Girls On the Run, which formed about 10 years ago, and Midland Kids on the Run, which started about six years ago. Across Michigan, there are about 20 chapters, and the Kellogg Foundation is a supporter of many. There are more than 200 nationwide.

Six local women decided to start another Girls on the Run as a way to guide and inspire girls in their own neighborhoods--and eventually, beyond.

"They were seeing there were so few opportunities in Saginaw for girls to get together and talk about their dreams, their hopes, have camaraderie and learn about their health and get physical activity," says Jennifer Naegele, council director of the Saginaw chapter.

It expanded to Bay County last year for the same reasons. Both counties are open to third through fifth graders, and any school can sign up as long as they have volunteer coaches who will learn the Girls on the Run curriculum. The 10-week session ends with a 5K run; some groups run in the spring and fall, and some only in the spring. This year they'll run the WIOG-102.5 Leaping Lizard 5K on May 11. The Saginaw-Bay County council also runs the Reindeer Run 5K in the fall in conjunction with the PRIDE of Saginaw's holiday parade.

This spring season started Feb. 25 with 133 girls from Bay and Saginaw counties. They are spread among seven schools, one with two teams, and a YMCA. For $99, the girls get running shoes, coaches trained to deliver the Girls on the Run curriculum, a healthy snacks and a race entry fee. The cost of it all comes to more like $150, so donations from individuals and community groups cover the rest. There are also full and partial scholarships given for girls who want to join but can't afford it.

"It's the most girls we've ever had," Naegele says. "We're so excited to see so much interest in the community. And it's great that girls who participate have such a good time with it."

The good time comes through meeting after school twice a week for two and a half hours each day to talk and run and set goals--the ultimate one being the 5K. Each session starts with a healthful snack and topic of the day, all based on a nationwide curriculum. It's followed by physical fitness training and running.

"The topic may be peer pressure, choosing healthy foods, discussing media image," Naegele says.

Like most of the girls, Naegele had never run a 5K before getting involved with Girls on the Run. Carley, 36, started running about a year and a half ago. She's now in training for a marathon. It was through her line of work as a child and adolescent therapist that she learned about Girls on the Run.

"A mom asked me if I'd ever heard of it. I hadn't. She said, 'We really need this to come to Bay City,'" Carley says.

She liked what she learned about it, met with Naegele and a board member and expanded Girls to Bay County. She became a coach along with two others at Zion Lutheran School, where only five girls signed up. This year they partnered with Dow Bay Area Family Y and work with a group of 16 girls and two coaches from there, practicing on the indoor track after their daily lessons.

Carley says it's an impressive curriculum and not so unlike a group therapy approach, and it yields fast results.

"It's funny…. our group…. I mean, what a group. We have the most different shapes, sizes and personalities. It's just a testament to what this is all about," she says. "We push this is not a competition against each other; running is how you push yourself to achieve your goals."

"What's so great is a lot of girls don't even know what a 5K is or how long it is…But they want to finish, they want to do this. It's kind of powerful. It's so cool to see."

Her daughter Grace, 8, has gone from avoiding running to loving it. She sums it up for the Girls on the Run: "I just like hanging out with a bunch of girls and meeting new friends.

It's hard to know which touches Carley more--that the girls are becoming runners, running races many adults never have, or building a self-confidence and self-comfort that chokes her up just talking about it.

"It's changed my life, personally, running… I always think, 'Aren't they going to be tired? Don't their brains just want to veg out?' But they are so excited. Their confidence already is just starting to blossom," she says. "It's such a special, special thing to be a part of. I'm so lucky."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer and the Development News Editor for Metromode.
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