They are girls, third to fifth graders, from Mobile and Baldwin counties, 150 strong. They have inner strength. They are Girls on the Run (GOTR), striding to reach their limitless potential.
With over 200,000 girls participating each year nationwide, GOTR does as its name implies and more. To clarify, it is not a sporting event or track club, but it does feature running — the physical and mental aspects. Both complement each other.
“We want to teach girls from a young age that they have the power within themselves to accomplish anything they put their minds to,” says GOTR South Alabama Executive Director Anna Katherine Ray. “With each season, girls in the program gain a better understanding of who they are, celebrate their positive attributes, recognize the value of teamwork and healthy relationships and discover how to make a positive difference in the world.”
But why running?
“Running allows time for reflection, time to process your day,” Ray answers. “The girls have a personal sense of accomplishment after completing the lap goals they have set for themselves and, ultimately, completing a 5K at the end of the season.” She adds that there are no qualifications to be in the program, including running abilities. “Girls on the Run is an inclusive program, inviting any girl to participate regardless of social, physical or cognitive development,” the director notes.
Sessions run for 10 weeks, and the group meets twice a week for one hour and 45 minutes. Trained coaches guide teams consisting of 16 girls through the GOTR curriculum, which focuses on the 5 C’s + 1 — confidence, care, character, connections, competence and contribution. Participants meet in schools, churches, community centers and civic rooms, among other locations.
Ray’s initial interest with GOTR was not as an administrator but as a mom. Her daughter, now age 13, “was having some difficulties at school and losing her confidence,” Ray says. “I didn’t know what to do as a parent to help her.”
Ray then heard about GOTR. “I cried when I read about it online.” Julie, then age 9, enrolled in her school’s pilot team.
“I didn’t like running at first,” Julie recalls of her rookie season with the program. “But it became fun. I met a lot of other girls and learned a lot.” Today, the GOTR graduate who “didn’t like running” plays basketball and soccer for St. Paul’s Episcopal School and has also made great strides academically.
Mardie Pfeiffer Sharpe initially introduced the program to the Mobile area. Ray joined as a parent volunteer before becoming a board member in 2015 and executive director in the fall of 2018.
Fun and Games with a Purpose
The GOTR-trained volunteer coaches are background-checked, CPR-certified and experienced in communicating with children. Many are moms, such as Mobile’s Debbie Hayes.
“I am an avid runner,” Hayes explains. “When we moved here from Birmingham, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a girl’s running program. It will be great!’ It is much more. Girls on the Run is a beautiful program that develops character.”
The coach and mom adds, “You don’t always know what is going on with kids. I can remember my thoughts [at that age], but I don’t know theirs. It is nice to be able to integrate a well-written, curriculum-based training into their lives.”
Topics covered include: bullying (don’t be a bystander, be a stand by-er); words matter (be careful what you say); beauty in the world (not just what you look like); peer pressure (don’t do it); and supporting each other (stand by your friend). Skits, activities and lessons are discussed, and practice ends with a 30-minute run, with girls encouraging each other along the way, no matter how fast or slow.
During the program, participants complete community impact projects, and at the 10 weeks’ conclusion, all teams from both counties meet for a 5K run.
“I was excited to see my mom as coach,” Debbie’s daughter Kate Scot, now age 10 says. “I like running and liked making new friends and being in the activities.”
Studies show that by adolescence, “girls’ confidence drops about twice as much as boys’,” according to the Girls on the Run website. “Friendships become more complicated and challenging, girls’ perception of their academic ability declines, the likelihood of anxiety and depression increases and participation in physical activity plummets.” But the website offers hope, noting, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Ray agrees.
“Our mission is to give girls the tools and life skills needed to stay true to who they are,” she says, “and have the confidence to do so.”
Sage words to run by.
Find more information about Girls on the Run at girlsontherunsouthal.org.