Girls running program aims to boost self-esteem

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Fatso. Freckle-face. Crybaby.

Some may remember their childhood interactions with a laugh, but to Germantown resident Jennifer Gill, name-calling is no joke.

Throughout her younger years, Gill was teased about her nose and height.

‘‘It still hits home,” she said. ‘‘I still get upset about it.”

But Gill is not defeated.

Now, compelled by her passions as a mother and an avid runner with a master’s degree in public health, Gill hopes to help young girls strengthen their self-confidence by starting a county chapter of a girls running program with Bethesda resident Eve Mills, also a runner and mother of three.

‘‘When it comes to our girls, we don’t want them to experience the same things that we have experienced,” Gill said.

The two women plan to launch Girls on the Run, an after-school program for elementary school girls to talk about issues like self-esteem, gossiping, body image and bullying, while keeping fit through running.

Girls in the program train to run a 5k race — about 3 miles — at the end of 12 weeks, but the point is not to create competitive ‘‘speed demons,” Gill said.

Running is intermingled with discussion in a fun atmosphere, through games, like having one girl identify a favorite TV show and having all the girls who also like it run 100 yards together.

‘‘It’s almost like you’re having a fitness routine without really realizing you’re having a fitness routine,” she said.

The program helps teach girls how to set a goal — such as running the 5k — and supports them through it, Gill added, while also enhancing physical fitness, self-esteem and friendship.

‘‘You don’t have to win the race,” Gill said. ‘‘And if you come in last you come in last. You finished it and that’s the important thing.”

Mills, 40, and Gill, 30, hope to start two sites for girls in third through fifth grades next spring at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda and Germantown Elementary School.

With interest from more parents or schools, they hope to expand the program to other sites in the future.

For a 12-week season, each girl pays a $150 fee that includes 24 one-hour sessions. The fee can also be adjusted based on household income, Mills said.

Although the program will start in Bethesda and Germantown, where parents are likely able to pay the full fee, Mills said she hopes to eventually take the program to areas that may need subsidizing.

Regardless of their financial background, Mills believes that all girls could benefit from the program.

‘‘I don’t think character-building is an economic issue,” she said. ‘‘You could be in a very rich area and have character issues. I think that crosses all sorts of socioeconomic lines.”

The nearest chapter of the nonprofit organization, which has about 120 branches across the nation and Canada, is in Northern Virginia, where Jenn Brown oversees more than 80 sites for Girls on the Run and coaches a team in Arlington, Va.

In the six years the program has operated there, the feedback has been ‘‘tremendous,” Brown said.

Gym teachers have reported that the girls are beating boys in one-mile runs. Parents have reported their shy daughters raising their hands in class. And school principals have reported that the girls are some of the most helpful students in the school.

Through Girls on the Run, which Brown describes as ‘‘20 percent about the running, 80 percent about everything else,” Brown has also seen girls bond with each other, when they ‘‘probably never would have been friends otherwise.”

‘‘It’s the first chance these girls are getting to play a sport.... and not have to be in competition with another girl,” she said.

Instead, the girls learn to share experiences and support each other as friends, with the guidance of their coach, Brown said.

Like a ‘‘cool aunt” that has a disciplinary side, but is also fun, the coach leads students through discussions and exercises, she said.

The organization requires that the head coach be female.

Although coaching is unpaid volunteer work, it is all worth it, Brown said, when she spots her students 100 yards from the finish line of their season-ending 5k race.

‘‘When they turn the corner and realize they’re going to finish, the expression changes on their faces,” she said. ‘‘It’s very cool.”