Girls on the Run is helping local students learn life lessons through physical activity

13 min read217 views and 357 shares Posted October 29, 2019

“Girls on the Run…so much fun!”

This is the affirmation that rings out before every session of the popular and successful non-profit physical activity-based youth development program for girls. It incorporates running with a 20-lesson curriculum “designed to promote good choices for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.”

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It’s yelled out with special enthusiasm at Ebenezer Elementary School in the Cornwall-Lebanon School District, which has a 22-member team for the fall season—its fourth and largest ever. The school fielded one of the first GOTR teams in Lebanon County, and it’s a great example of the impact the program has.

The Ebenezer Elementary School Girls on the Run team, comprised of third through fifth-graders, poses for a group shot behind their school. The team meets twice a week after school, working on communication skills through indoor and outdoor exercises. (Barb West)

The Back Story

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Girls on the Run started in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C., by Molly Barker. It is now in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. There are over 200 councils in GOTR International in the U.S. and Canada. The 10-week program is held in the fall and the spring. As part of it, girls do a Community Impact Project and complete a 5K at the end of the season. 

Girls on the Run is for girls in grades three through five, while the newer Heart and Sole program (known as Girls On Track when it started in 2010) is for girls in grades six through eight.

Locally, GOTR started 10 years ago in the Lancaster area with one team in Hempfield School District. Lebanon County got on board in 2016 with a team in the Annville-Cleona School District. Now, there are five GOTR teams and one Heart and Sole team in Lebanon County. A total of 83 girls are currently participating, and that growth is anticipated to continue in the spring.

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“We now have a presence in every school district in Lancaster and Lebanon counties and have served hundreds of girls in Lebanon County and thousands of girls in Lancaster County,” Maine Keith, board liaison for Lebanon County, said in emailed responses to questions. She has been involved with GOTR since spring 2016 and has been on the board since February 2017.

The Ebenezer Elementary School Girls on the Run team gather on the playground for a drill. The team meets twice a week after school, working on communication skills through indoor and outdoor exercises. (Barb West)

Teams start when a school or a group of individuals approaches the organization. 

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“We have had huge support from schools, teachers, parents, staff, administrators, guidance counselors, school nurses, and community members,” Keith said.

And involvement grows each year.

“Sign-up rates have been climbing steadily in Lebanon (County),” Keith said. “Each season, we have added teams, and each season, the existing teams have grown from the previous season. We are presently talking to Cornwall Elementary in hopes of starting their first team in the spring 2020 season.” 

Program coordinator Kylie Homan, a former public school psychologist, has worked full-time for GOTR since July of this year. She helped establish the team at the Eastern Lebanon County Intermediate School back in 2016.

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“In 2018, we had over 2,000 girls participate in the program between our fall and spring seasons (the spring programs are always larger),” Homan said in emailed responses to questions. “This fall, we currently have 770 girls participating.” 

Following the direction of their coach, the Ebenezer Girls on the Run team go through warmup exercises behind the school. After a warmup, the girls ran laps as part of an activity to improve their steps to communication. (Barb West)

No girl is turned away from GOTR because of an inability to pay.

“Participants are asked for a suggested donation when signing up based on family income,” Keith said. “We do ask each girl for something, as we are teaching girls accountability to the program and, most importantly, to invest in themselves. We are a lift-up, not a hand-out, organization.”

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“This fall, we have provided 54 percent of our participants with a partial scholarship,” Homan said. “Since 2009, over $1 million in financial aid has been collected. We are so grateful to our sponsors, both individuals and businesses in our community, who have made it possible to offer a scholarship rate at over 50 percent.”

GOTR at Ebenezer

Reading specialist Amanda Wenrich is in her fourth season as head coach at Ebenezer. Assistant coaches are Meghan Dissinger (a kindergarten teacher who’s been coaching for four years), Neely Spicer (a third-grade teacher who’s been coaching for four years), and Michelle Williams (also a reading specialist, who’s been coaching for two years). Cedar Crest High School nurse Tami Kohr has volunteered with the Ebenezer team for four years.

Coach Michelle Williams talks about ‘Steps to Communication” during one of the practices of the Ebenezer Elementary School Girls on the Run team. The team, comprised of third through fifth grade girls, meets twice a week after school. Practices involve both indoor and outdoor activities and drills. (Barb West)

Ebenezer’s team came about when then-school nurse Debbie Clark approached the coaches. She was instrumental in helping the program expand into Lebanon County.

There are three curricula for Girls on the Run and two for Heart and Sole. Each class follows a pattern—getting on board, warming up, working out, identity cards/goals, and wrap-up. The season is divided into three parts:

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  • Identity/Self Care (lessons are Self-Talk, Star Power, and Our Emotions)
  • Connectedness/Healthy Relationships (lessons are Empathy, Resolving Conflict, Expressing Our Emotions — the Ebenezer girls were in this part of the season)
  • Empowerment/Celebrate & Share Our Strengths (lessons are a Community Impact Project, Our GOTR Toolbox, and the Final 5K)  
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“The program aims to integrate physical activity into the learning components,” Homan said.

Ebenezer’s service project this season was volunteering at the Tower to Town race in Lebanon on October 6. The girls served as race marshals, cheering on competitors who included Cedar Crest track & field coach Rob Bare and Spicer.

“The girls wanted to see a real race before their 5K experience,” Wenrich said of the service project in emailed responses to questions; she and the other coaches answered as a team. 

“The Community Impact Project is girl-driven and guided by coaches,” Homan said. “The curriculum leads the girls through identifying their targets of interest and what they will do as part of the project. Coaches are there just to facilitate the overall implementation.”

From left, Brielle Miller and Laney Snavely, members of the Ebenezer Elementary School Girls on the Run team, work as partners on a project at a recent practice at the school. The team of third through fifth grade girls meets twice a week after school, enjoying both indoor and outside activities. (Barb West)

The GOTR fall season 5K, presented by Orthopedic Associates of Lancaster, will be held Nov. 23 at Millersville University. About two weeks prior, the girls do a practice 5K.

“This event is often the highlight of our season,” the Ebenezer coaching team said. “The girls run around our school walking path with the support of their teachers, many of whom stay after school to cheer them on. Most family members of the girls are even able to come to this event.

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“Our practice 5K is often the first time the girls accomplish running or walking 3.1 miles and they are excited to do it on their home turf,” they added.

The actual 5K is a big celebration, one that all the girls look forward to.

“The goal is to have most or all girls participate, as this is the culmination of all they have learned during the season,” Keith said. “There is much discussion, goal-setting, and planning that goes into the 5K, and it allows them to follow through on a plan they have crafted for weeks.

“They really come together as a team and are accompanied by (an adult) running buddy who will be by their side the whole time. It is a very exciting day!” she added.

Homan said GOTR has partnered with The Cedar Foundation to provide busing for some of the Lebanon teams to “ensure equal access to all the girls and their families who may not have the ability to get to Lancaster for the event.”   

“The smiles as girls cross the finish line is the biggest compliment to an awesome GOTR season,” the Ebenezer team said. “There are often tears as well, but they are tears of achievement and pride. These girls accomplished something big.”

A Class Visit

One recent class was held on a rainy Monday in the Ebenezer gym. 20 of the 22 girls on the team gathered in Wenrich’s room for a snack and to get changed, a winding-down after the busy school day.

Over a snack, Serenity Muthama, age 10 and in fifth grade, spoke about the program—this is her third time participating. She first heard about it through Spicer.

“We get to run and make new friends,” she answered when asked what she liked best. 

She said she will take what Keith called “the breathe lesson” with her as she prepares for middle school and beyond.

“(If) someone does something, you don’t have to yell at them and be mad at them, you can just use it, either ignore them or say nice things back,” she said.

For fourth grade student Brielle Miller, this was her second go-round in the program.

“A letter was going around and my mom told me I should try it out,” she said. “I thought it might be fun to make friends, I wanted to see what kind of lessons we were going to do—I knew there was a 5K involved and I really wanted to do that,” she added.

Miller talked about how fun the 5Ks were, and giggled as she recalled how the team dressed up in tutus and colored their hair for the event. 

Miller said she likes to run, make new friends, and try to achieve her lap goal in each class (more on that below). She says she will take the concept of “star power” with her as she matures. The girls are told to visualize a sky full of stars and to choose one that represents their star power. It grows brighter as they make good choices, but can be dimmed through adversity.

“When you can lay down and relax and try to take those clouds away—you need to find your star power and make sure it shines,” Miller said with a big grin.

Keith said girls are encouraged to go through the program as many seasons as they want “as long as there are enough coaches for each team.”

“There is a huge benefit to repeating the program and the lessons really begin to take root the more times they participate,” she added.

“Many of the lessons are similar or the same in the curricula, but are approached in a different manner or have different activities (that) reinforce the concepts,” Homan added.

“This year, five of our 22 girls have completed one previous season of GOTR,” the coaching team said. “Six of the 22 girls have completed two previous years. That means half our team are GOTR veterans. We take that as a compliment to the excellent team spirit the girls find in our program.”

This day’s class focused on showing empathy and making friends. The girls were asked to write the name of an animal on an index card. In the gym, they paired into two groups: The first partner would ask a yes-or-no question about the second partner’s animal. If they got it wrong, they ran to the other end of the gym and back before asking another question.

The game served as a warmup to the more physical activity to follow. During stretching exercises, the girls were encouraged to take the animal game idea further to get to know each other even better. They were given another index card and asked to come up with a more involved question: What’s their favorite school subject and why, for example.

The Ebenezer Elementary Girls on the Run team run through a leap frog style drill during one of their bi-weekly practices at the school. The girls are in training for an upcoming 5K event at their school. (Barb West)

Again, they partnered up and began doing laps around the gym, asking their questions as they went. With each lap came a different running buddy, a different question, a deepening of budding relationships. 

With their lap goals written on their hands—the number of times around the gym they wanted to accomplish that day—each girl grabbed a popsicle stick to indicate she’d completed a lap, either running or walking. 

As the novelty wore off, several girls approached the stranger in their midst and asked to walk a lap with them. Keith and Homan also joined in, running, walking, talking and encouraging.

Fifth grade student Emma Wallander is in her third session of GOTR.

“We have these huge assemblies for Girls on the Run and I thought it looked like a lot of fun,” she said when asked how she got involved. 

She especially enjoys interacting with the younger girls, making new friends, and staying healthy. But the biggest plus for her is the self-esteem boost GOTR provides.

“I’m not the best at school,” Wallander admitted. “Just to going to Girls on the Run makes me feel better after the day. You just get to run with some of your best friends and you get to talk and you get to learn about your different feelings and how to control them. It really does help in school and out of school.”

Wallander inspired fellow fifth grade student Ella Wolff to give the program a try.

“Emma talks a lot about it and she said it would be really fun,” she said. “I really wanted to grow my confidence and I didn’t want to just stay at home (after school).”

She says she’ll use the star power concept as she grows up to “grow my confidence and self-esteem more.”

Members of the Ebenezer Elementary School Girls on the Run team run the course at the school during one of their bi-weekly practices. Practices entail both indoor and outdoor activities that work help the girls improve their communication skills. (Barb West)

Another lap, another bright, enthusiastic young woman. Also experiencing GOTR for the first time is fifth grade student Kylie Ollar, who’d been mulling over whether or not to get involved since third grade. The timing wasn’t right this year.

Ollar finished in third-place in her gym class’ mile run last year. She said she wants to beat that record and thinks the class is helping her reach that goal. But it’s more than that for her.

“I like how we can talk to each other and get to know each other and stay connected,” she said. “I’m going to remember this stuff and try to do the same thing when I get into middle school and high school, like being kind and physical activity. I try to be the kind kid.” 

Karisa Caicedo, fourth grade, is in her second GOTR class.

“Some of my friends were telling me about it, so I asked my mom if I could do it,” she said. “It’s good for me, it’s healthy for me, and when I get to high school, I can still do it, so I’m so happy to be here.”

She enjoys the community involvement part of the program the best—Keith said the girls do everything from visiting nursing homes to making cards for kids staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Hershey to gathering items for food banks and the Humane Society—and Caicedo said she will strive to “be healthy and to eat right.”

“And when someone’s being mean to you, to take a breather and think about it and tell them how to stop, and if they don’t stop, to tell them again, and if they don’t stop, then tell the teacher and the teacher will talk to them,” Caicedo added. 

The last walking buddy of the hour-and-a-half class was Laney Snavely, age 10 and in fifth grade, another girl in her third time in the class. She’d had Wenrich as a reading teacher and Wenrich encouraged her to try it out.

“I was already into running by that point,” Snavely said; she runs at home and also does cheerleading.

“I like hanging out with my friends and being able to run—it’s just healthy,” she said. 

She says the coping skills she’s learned will continue to serve her well, in times when that nasty “cloud cover” moves in.

“Sometimes people are not that nice, (so) if I’m upset, I know some ways to calm myself,” she said. “Cloud cover is when your star power isn’t shining. If somebody puts you down.” 

After the running and walking ended and the lap sticks collected, the tired girls gathered in a circle for the wrap-up. They were asked to write or draw one way to get to know a friend better on the front of their individual Identity Cards and were left with a goal: to find someone they didn’t know well and get to know them better.

GOTR For All

It’s not just the girls in their formative years who benefit from their involvement with Girls on the Run—the adults do, too. 

Keith said she most enjoys knowing the organization is helping teach girls “strategies that will serve them well throughout their lives.”

“They have a feeling of gratitude and confidence for what they have learned and all they have accomplished during the season. (And) they learn to live joyful, confident and healthy lives,” she said.

Amanda Wenrich, reading specialist at Ebenezer Elementary School, runs a lap with one of the Girls on the Run during a practice at the school. The team, comprised of girls in third through fifth grades, meets twice a week after school. The team, lead by Wenrich, is currently practicing for an upcoming 5K at the school. (Barb West)

The Ebenezer coaching team enjoys seeing girls transfer the skills taught into their lives at school.

“We see our girls daily and watch them grow as students,” they said. “It is awesome being able to help build their foundation as strong, empowered, inspired young women.

“As coaches, we see girls settle conflict independently, with tools they learned in GOTR. They use GOTR strategies to calm themselves during stressful situations. We hear GOTR language in our classes and in the hallways of our building. We know the program is working,” they added.

And even past the middle-school cutoff, local young women return to Girls on the Run.

“Lots of girls in Lancaster have continued as running buddies, volunteers, and junior coaches,” Keith said. “Last spring, we had all the girls from the very first GOTR team in Hempfield return as VICs—Very Important Celebrators—to hand medals at the finish line to over 1,400 girls who participated in the spring season.”

“This season, we have 28 junior coaches (high school girls) who have come through our 4.5-hour national coach training to give back to the organization through a leadership role,” Homan noted. “Each season, our junior coach numbers continue to grow as we have more and more program veterans.”

Kylie Ollar makes her way around the track during an outdoor practice at the Elementary School. Kylie is one of the Girls on the Run team that meets after school at Ebenezer Elementary School. (Barb West)

It’s the message at the heart of the program that continues to inspire girls and women.

“They learn that when they have an idea or a dream, and a plan that follows with goal-setting, they can accomplish anything they put their mind to,” Keith said.

“As we say at Girls on the Run: ‘The finish line is just the beginning!’”

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