Local Charity Empowers Young Girls Through Running

By: Kurt Buesching | September 2, 2011

In running, crossing the finish line is an accomplishment. Whether the runners collapse out of exhaustion or pump their fists in the air, they do so with pride in having completed a difficult feat.

Girls on the Run, a national organization with local affiliates, strives to empower girls in third- to eighth-grade by giving them the skills to run 5 kilometers, along with the tools to be healthy and confident. Girls participate through local schools, churches, YMCAs and other organizations, with Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan, based in Ypsilanti, and Girls on the Run of Greater Detroit, supporting local teams.

“Our 5k is a metaphor for setting goals and meeting them,” said Danielle Plunkett, executive director of Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan. Not all of the girls in the program will be runners, she explained, but hopefully all of them will remain physically active, be confident and avoid risky behavior like alcohol and drug use.

Girls on the Run was founded by Molly Barker, a social worker, teacher and four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete. A runner since the age of 15, Barker started Girls on the Run in 1996 in North Carolina. Today, the program runs in more than 150 cities. There are 20 different Girls on the Run affiliates in Michigan.

The local teams, run by volunteer coaches, meet twice a week for 10 weeks, ideally after school, for 90 minutes. Each meeting includes a lesson – for example, dealing with peer pressure – that’s first discussed, then reinforced by incorporating it into a game or other physical activity and reinforced again by incorporating it into the running practice.

The lessons are designed to refute the “girl box – this trend of girls looking to the outside world to define them,” said Plunkett. Early lessons focus on getting the girls to look inward and decide what they stand for. Then the focus shifts to team-building, looking more to the outside and relating to groups. Finally, the lessons focus on the community – a big part of what Girls on the Run stands for.

That community focus is what drives the 5k culminating event, and the community service project the girls design and implement.

Community service projects can be anything from a bake sale to raise money for a charity – a team recently raised $200 for the Humane Society through a bake sale — to an environmental awareness program. “The important part is that we are encouraging (the girls) to be leaders in their community,” Plunkett said, explaining that the girls decide on the project and do the bulk of the work, under the coach’s supervision.

Girls on the Run

“It gives them a sense of pride and shows them that they can have an impact on their community,” Plunkett said.

The 5k event is also community-focused, as parents and others run with the girls. “It’s a great first 5k event. It’s not just our girls’ first 5k; it’s also many of our families’ first 5k,” which is powerful because girls from physically active families tend to follow suit, Plunkett said. There’s even a Grown-ups Guide that goes home with girls to encourage their families to train for the 5k.

It’s not often that parents get to share the glory with their kids in a sporting event, Plunkett said. “You really get to cross the finish line with them.”

The focus of the run is on finishing. It’s not a timed event, and everyone receives a medal.

This fall’s Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan 5k, sponsored by New Balance and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, is Nov. 20 at Eastern Michigan University. Fifty teams of girls will participate. Last spring, more than 3,000 people, including 1,400 girls in the program, participated in the event.

The Girls on the Run program focuses on two groups – third-through-eighth-graders and then middle school girls. The program for younger girls – the organization’s original curriculum – is designed to harness young girls’ energy and form groups of girls that support positive behavior. The middle school program is similar, but focuses on more mature issues like texting, Internet use and other teen issues.

Teams of eight to 15 girls are typically run by two coaches, with each coach running the program one day a week. The program runs in the fall and spring, and teams can choose one or both seasons.

To start a team or for more information, visit www.girlsontherunsemi.org (Washtenaw, Livingston, Monroe, Jackson and Lenawee counties) or www.gotrdetroit.org (Wayne,Oakland and Macomb counties).