Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Girls on the road to being strong women

Girls on the Run program teaches self esteem through running and talking

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Girls run on the trail on Saturday at the South Germantown Recreational Park in Boyds during a 5K race that is the culmination of Girls on the Run, a program that builds the self-esteem of young girls through running.
Ten-year-old Ali Dane trained two hours each week for the past 12 weeks to reach one of the biggest goals that she has set in her young life.

The fourth-grader at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda crossed the finish line of a 5K race on Saturday as the culmination of a program that builds young girls self-esteem through running.

‘‘I felt really, really good after I ran that because I never ran a 5K before,” she said. ‘‘It was really fun.”

Dane, along with 87 girls from seven schools in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Germantown and Gaithersburg took part in Girls on the Run.

The before- or after-school program is meant to teach girls about issues of bullying, self esteem, gossiping and body image, while making friends and keeping fit by training for a 5K race.

‘‘We learned a lot of life lessons, like not to take drugs and to have good behavior,” Dane said. ‘‘If you don’t learn at an early age, when you grow up, you don’t know what to do.”

Girls on the Run International was established in 2000 as a nonprofit program in Charlotte, N.C., by Molly Barker, a mother of two, writer and runner, who began running as a teen in order to fit into weight and beauty standards established by her peers. She wanted to create a program that would teach girls to run in order to be themselves instead of trying to fit into a typical mold.

Now the program has more than 120 councils across the United States and Canada.

The Montgomery County chapter was established in March by two moms — Germantown resident Jennifer Gill and Bethesda resident Eve Mills — because they, too, felt the pressure to fit into a certain mold while growing up and felt that who they were wasn’t good enough. They wanted to give other girls the motivation and tools to overcome judgment and stereotypes.

Mills coached a Girls on the Run chapter in Fairfax, Va., before moving to Montgomery County and was surprised that no program existed.

‘‘I wanted my daughter to participate and there wasn’t a program,” Mills said. ‘‘I think she’s learned to rise to challenges; this was a huge challenge for her. Also it gives us a starting point for conversations about bullying, gossiping and body image.”

Girls attend hour-long sessions twice a week during the 12-week long program. They do exercises such as playing leapfrog while using assertive statements. The idea is to teach them to be assertive and stand up for themselves when confronted with a bully or a problem.

Another exercise was a softball game where the girls had to answer questions about healthy food to get to each base, as a way to teach them what to eat to stay fit.

The girls form bonds and learn to work as a team by encouraging each other while running and doing the exercises, according to Mills.

Part of the curriculum also includes training for the 5K race, which is 3.1 miles.

‘‘It’s something to have as a goal,” Gill said. ‘‘The goal isn’t to run the race at a great speed and finish it. We just want them to have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the 12 weeks.”

Schools participating in the spring season — the chapter’s first — include Wood Acres, Burning Tree and Bradley Hills elementary schools, all in Bethesda, Strawberry Knoll Elementary in Gaithersburg, Travilah Elementary in North Potomac, Germantown Elementary in Germantown and Potomac Elementary in Potomac.

During the fall season, which will run from September to December, nine more schools will be added: Farmland and Wheaton Woods elementary schools, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville; Wyngate and Bannockburn elementary schools and Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda; Ronald McNair Elementary School in Germantown and Darnestown Elementary School.

The founders hope that the program expands to more schools at a slow and steady pace. And they hope that many of the same girls will keep participating in the program, which will change each season.

‘‘I don’t know why they took so long to get it started. It’s very fun. It’s very motivating for the girls,” said Germantown resident Elai Ramos, who has a third-grader in the program. ‘‘The girls love it. I’ve been to some practices and I see them very excited about it.”

The conclusion of the spring season took place on Saturday at the South Germantown Recreational Park, when the girls and their running buddies — family members or friends who ran with them — finished the 5K race to applause and colorful balloons.

And although exhausted, the girls felt that all of their hard work and training was worthwhile.

‘‘I really loved the lessons and the running,” said Burning Tree third-grader Gennie Anderson. ‘‘It taught us that girls can be girls. We don’t have to be somebody; we can be whoever we want.”

To learn more

For more information about Girls on the Run or to register for the program contact Jennifer Gill at 301-972-3705 or Eve Mills at 301-229-2514.