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Girls on the Run of Alachua County

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Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a national character building after school program that seeks to educate girls in 3rd through 8th grade about the “Girl Box” — expectations and labels that dictate what girls “should be.” It is at this vital age that girls often start internalizing negative, girl-specific messages – they aren’t smart enough, thin enough, athletic enough, pretty enough or good enough –  and struggle to be true to themselves. GOTR teaches girls to embrace their unique strengths, and empowers them to reach their full potential, living a life free of these damaging standards. Through group lesson plans that creatively incorporate running, the 10-week program inspires confidence, self-respect and healthy living.

It’s about more than just running. “GOTR is an important resource for girls… It gives them the tools to navigate the social complexities of middle and high school, and builds a healthy self esteem to weather the difficulties,” says Jennifer Bleiweis, Co-founder and new Executive Director of the Alachua County Chapter. Jennifer helped organize the first local season in 2010, along with Pam Hess and Nancy Smith, and is amazed at the program’s growth. “We started with one site and eight girls, so to see the impact and energy at the Spring 2014 5K with all those girls and families participating is truly the greatest reward,” she states.

The Alachua County program has seen tremendous growth in four short years. Fall of 2013 marked the pilot middle school program (6th – 8th grade), called Girls on Track, and the Spring 2014 GOTR season was the largest to-date, with 104 girls across seven sites. Jennifer credits the many volunteers who worked tirelessly over the years to get the program where it is today. Yet the hope is to reach more and more girls. Ideally, she’d like to see GOTR implemented county-wide, via a partnering with the school system. Currently, GOTR relies mostly on parent and teacher liaisons to promote the program. While Jennifer is pleased with the success GOTR has had so far, the goal is to reach all girls, in all socioeconomic groups. To do so, however, will require expanding the sponsorship funding aspect of the program, so every girl has the opportunity to participate.

The distinct thing about this program is that it encourages cooperation, rather than competition, as the girls work together to achieve their running goals. The curriculum also fosters collegiality. For 75 minutes twice a week, girls discuss age-specific lessons like “Gossiping is a Bad Habit,’’ or “Bullying is for the Birds,” or “Community Begins with Me,” and then complete a running exercise together. This helps develop an all-encompassing healthy lifestyle while developing mutual respect.

At the end of the ten week season, they run a 5K together, cheering each other on to finish the race. This deviates from the usual competitive nature of many athletic programs, and helps foster the notion that girls can work together and support one another, which is contrary to messages about girls having gossipy, catty or bullying behavior.

Lindsay, a 5th grader at Talbot Elementary, just completed the Spring season. She says she would tell other girls to join the program because, “you have a good time doing it, you get exercise, you get new friends and the coaches are really nice.” When asked if it helped her self-esteem, she smiled shyly and uttered, “Mhmmm.”

Mia Jones, University of Florida track team member, GOTR Intern and Spring 2014 coach at PK Young, coached one of the largest groups this season, with 20 members. To demonstrate how the program impacted the girls in her care, she quoted one who said, “I used to think some of the other girls were mean…but now I see them differently – they are different and kind.” This gave Mia chills.

“I’ve learned a lot about the human condition from [those] nine-year olds,” Mia said. “They taught me how to talk, listen and wait, all over again. Girls on the Run is such a beneficial commodity and program.”

GOTR volunteer and Spring 2014 coach Nori Connor agrees that GOTR is an important community resource. “The program is about so much more than running,” she explains. “Running the 5K is the result of all the lessons combined. By the end of the season, the girls really believe in themselves and understand that with work and determination, they can accomplish anything.”

To register or learn more, visit www.alachuagotr.org

Get involved! Read about the adult charity running component of GOTR, Solemates via www.alachuagotr.org.

Note: Nooriel Nolan is a Board Member of GOTRAC

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