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posted: 3/23/2013 5:00 AM

Running program empowers girls -- body and mind

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  • Laina Driver and Nicolina Helms, both of Crystal Lake, get ready for last year's season-ending Girls on the Run 5K.

      Laina Driver and Nicolina Helms, both of Crystal Lake, get ready for last year's season-ending Girls on the Run 5K.
    Courtesy of Julie Monacella/Monacella Photography

  • Nearly 9,000 members make up Girls on the Run's two Chicago-area councils; across the U.S. and in Canada there are more than 120,500 GOTR members. Pictured is the Northwest Illinois Council 5K last May.

      Nearly 9,000 members make up Girls on the Run's two Chicago-area councils; across the U.S. and in Canada there are more than 120,500 GOTR members. Pictured is the Northwest Illinois Council 5K last May.
    Courtesy of Laurie Dayon

  • At the 5K, girls run with a buddy. Some girls, like Julia Fier, left, pick their dads to be running buddies. Running partners get in shape during a practice run, said twin Lauren Fier, right, whose buddy was the school secretary.

      At the 5K, girls run with a buddy. Some girls, like Julia Fier, left, pick their dads to be running buddies. Running partners get in shape during a practice run, said twin Lauren Fier, right, whose buddy was the school secretary.
    Courtesy of Julie Monacella/Monacella Photography

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By Hope Babowice

With its "in like a lion, out like a lamb" reputation, March doesn't seem like the best month to start a running program. But in only 12 to 14 weeks there'll be the season-ending 5K, so Girls on the Run, a nonprofit program for girls in grades three to five, and Girls on Track, the partner program for middle school girls in grades six through eight, hit the starting line as soon as March roars in.

Running alongside the physical part of the program is a curriculum that stresses self, team and community.

"It's not a program to create a runner," said Lisa Puma, Northwest Illinois Council program director. "It's really a program about creating an empowered individual."

Megan Steinmann, a third-grade teacher at Hampshire's Gary D. Wright Elementary School, learned about GOTR at a White House event honoring the school's Bronze Award recognition for the HealthierUS School Challenge. Steinmann chatted with teachers at the ceremony who mentioned GOTR and GOT and wasted no time bringing the idea back with her. She got the thumbs up from her principal, looped in an interested parent, found start-up funds in the school PTO and launched her school's first GOTR team, now in its second year.

Not a runner herself, Steinmann was drawn to the focus on the emotional health of the participants as well as the fitness angle. "It addresses a wide spread of things girls go through at this age -- gossiping, healthy eating habits, peer pressure," Steinmann explained. "I was surprised at the girls' ability to run and how hard they tried. It encouraged them to set a goal and see it to the end."

Twins Julia and Lauren Fier, 10, fifth-graders at Crystal Lake's South Elementary, are beginning their third year in the program.

Julia summed up the purpose, "You're supposed to get to know the girls and get to know yourself and know you're beautiful."

Lauren said, "It's easy but it takes a lot of practice. You have to really train for it."

A giant leap is the non-competitive 5K that caps off the season. While members typically invite an adult running partner, GOTR coaches at Batavia's H.C. Storm School also invited high school girls track team members to be running buddies. This year's 5K for the Northwest Illinois Council, which includes McHentry, DeKalb, Winnebago and portions of Lake counties, will be held Sunday, May 19, at Woodstock North High School and is expected to draw 2,500 girls and fans. The 5K offered by the Chicago Council, which includes Cook, DuPage, Will, Kendall and portions of Lake counties, will be held Saturday, June 1, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview and estimates attendance at about 13,000.

The program also instructs each team to work on a community service project.

"Girls on the Run is training girls to be nice and stay in shape," explained Cecelia Oplt, 11, a fifth-grader at Glacier Ridge Elementary in Crystal Lake. "I thought it was really nice of girls to pitch in and do everything."

The first year Oplt's team picked up trash around their school. The second year they planted flowers. "The whole team actually voted for it," Oplt said.

The Northwest Council added a multi-generational component with visits from grandparent-age women they call GO Girls. These women talk to the youth teams about strategies they use to overcome challenges. They'll also be at the 5K finish line to cheer on the runners.

Cost of the program is about $200 per girl and is paid by dues. Councils seek donations to reduce costs. The expectation is that all girls who are interested are enrolled, so sliding-scale fees are used. The national GOTR requires a one-time start-up fee of a $500 for each school.

"The Batavia Foundation for Educational Excellence covered the start-up fee," said Stacy Nalley, wellness teacher and social worker at H.C. Storm School. The H.C. Storm program enrolls about half of the girls in grades three through five, Nalley said. "Our biggest challenge to sustainability is adult support," Nalley said.

Child care was an issue, so Nalley's team offers a child care center staffed by Batavia High School students enrolled in a child care class.

Parent and coach Emily Krauklis of Hampshire believes girls embrace the program message that satisfaction comes from hard work and a supportive environment. "I hope this will translate to other areas like piano. It's a super-supportive thing."

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