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Running with Girls

Discover how your daughters (and sons) will benefit from a running program.

My seven-year-old daughter, Delaney, is the poster child for self-assurance. Her spirit and determination have already carried her far, including across several 5K finish lines. I worry that this phase may soon come to an end and wish I could bottle up her self-confidence and save it for when she needs it most.

Many young girls have issues with self esteem. Fortunately, there is an organization in Hampton Roads that encourages self-confidence and positive self-talk while incorporating exercise and social interaction. Girls on the Run Hampton Roads is a non-profit organization for girls in grades 3-8. Let’s learn more about it.

Girls on the Run Hampton Roads

Running for Healthy Bodies and Minds

Ellen Carver, executive director of Girls on the Run Hampton Roads, has been with the organization for seven years but has always had a passion for female empowerment and for fostering leadership skills in girls and women. “I just love what we do here,” Ellen said. “We are teaching girls at the dawn of adolescence to use their voices to express who they are, help others, get their needs met, and generally live a happy life.”

Girls on the Run Hampton Roads was founded in 2006 with about 30 girls in the program. Today they serve more than 1800 girls per year at 14 school districts and 100 schools. Girls can enroll in the program from third through eighth grades, a critical time when many girls go from being confident and self-assured to questioning the world around them.

Each program consists of twenty lessons led by a trained team coach. The girls work on positive self-talk, the identification of emotions, benefits of exercise, and other skills. The themes are the same for each grade level, but activities can vary. For example, coaches might begin a lesson by asking about their school day.

“It was terrible,” one girl might respond. “I had a math test and I failed it. I’m terrible at math.” The coach will then suggest ways to reframe those negative statements into more positive and goal-focused ones, such as, “Math is hard for me. I think I could use some extra help. I will ask my teacher tomorrow if I can get additional help.”

Exercise is often integrated into the lessons, as well. A game of tag can be used for constructing positive self-talk statements each time a girl is tagged. The regular exercise not only helps build stamina but also enables the brain to cement the lesson being taught.

Many people hear the name of the organization and think that running races is the primary goal of the group. The running is symbolic of goal completion. “We use running as a vehicle for a healthy, whole body state of mind and a way to drive home the lessons we are teaching,” Ellen said. There is a 5K at the end of the program, and all of the girls strive to complete this 3.1-mile race. Some run and others walk, and the community shows support for all of them.

“Later in the curriculum, each group completes charity work,” Ellen said. “They work together and use their skills in order to give back to the community. It’s important for the girls to be at the forefront of this project, not their parents. They have to find a charity that works with their skill set.”

The Heart and “Sole” of a Generation

Community Support and 5K Races

When Alexandra moved to the Suffolk region, she was looking for a program for her third-grade daughter. “She was rather shy and quiet, so I was looking for something community based that would help her open up,” she said. She liked that Girls on the Run followed a research-based curriculum that helps girls think strategically and build lasting relationships.

A few years ago, Alexandra decided to become a coach. “I’m beginning my fourth season as a coach,” she said. “I will be serving as a liaison between families and the Girls on the Run Director.” Some of her responsibilities include following program protocols, monitoring safety, and ensuring the curriculum is being followed.

While the 5K race is the pinnacle of the season, much more time is devoted to helping the girls get to know their teammates and building a cohesive unit together. “I can’t explain the feeling of what it’s like when the community comes out to support these girls,” Alexandra said. “They have achieved something so great, and the race is just one part of it.”

The big change for Alexandra this year is that she will be working with Heart & Sole, the middle school program for girls in grades 6-8, which offers lessons geared toward this specific age group and addresses topics such as body image, social pressures, and social media.

“There are so many social pressures that these girls contend with, including the pressure to post provocative pictures,” Alexandra said. “We want to help them build the confidence to say no and to make good choices and to not base self-worth on the number of ‘likes’ a picture receives.”

Alexandra wishes there had been a Girls on the Run program when she was a teen. “I didn’t have this support when I was growing up,” she said. “It was difficult finding my identity as a young woman. My daughter is developing skills that will help her through all phases of life. Plus, she’s building friendships and having a blast.”

Just the other day, Alexandra and her daughter were talking about what this organization has meant to them. “Girls on the Run gave me the opportunity to connect with girls my age who don’t go to my school,” her daughter said. “I met one of my best friends on a community team during the pandemic. My experience has been amazing.” Alexandra echoes that sentiment and hopes to continue coaching and working with her other children when they are old enough to participate.

Girls on the Run Hampton Roads serves all of the greater Hampton Roads area as well as the Eastern Shore, Franklin City, Southampton County, Surry County, and Gates County, North Carolina. Seasons run from September to December and February through May. For more information on programs and specific locations, visit www.gotrhr.org.

If you want to be involved with Girls on the Run but there isn’t a site in your area, visit www.gotrhr.org/Start-Site. You may be able to get a site started at a community facility or your child’s school.

Run Free Kids Club Newly Launched

Co-Ed Running Program for Girls and Boys

Interested in a program for boys and girls that teaches healthy habits through running? Jennifer Donnelly recently launched her new business, Run Free Kids Club, a name coined by her son, Gavin, 7.

RFKC is open to kids ages 4 through 12 and is more than just a running club. “We focus on mindset training and teach the kids how to set goals,” said Jenn, who’s been a runner all her life. Games and exercises are part of the weekly fun.

Everyone is welcome to join RFKC, regardless of level of ability. “Everyone’s ability varies,” said Jenn. “We want to encourage, not discourage.” Next summer she plans to offer running camps and a Summer Strides program for the whole family. “We’re very family oriented,” said Jenn, whose daughter, Olivia, 4, also likes to run. At the end of each season, participants receive a medal which they’ve earned by completing goals during the session.

Jenn started RFKC because it combines three of her passions: running, working with children, and giving back to the community. For more information about RFKC’s next session, which starts Oct. 9, 2021, visit runfreekidsclub.com or call Jenn at 210-846-3429.

Melissa Face

Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee, an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids...a little more. Her essays and articles have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine, Sasee Magazine, and twenty-one volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Read more at www.melissaface.com.

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