A whir of activity dominates the twice-weekly 75-minute sessions: animated group discussions, votes, brainstorming, life lessons and game-playing that, of course, includes running.
Girls on the Run isn’t about speed, but with such a jam-packed agenda, it sure goes fast.
The goal of the program – in its 19th year nationally and third in La Plata County – is manifold, but basically boils down to this: making girls feel better about themselves.
“It’s really about their self-esteem and living healthy,” says Autumn Frickel, area director for Girls on the Run. “It’s such a positive program, and I’ve seen the girls growing so much doing it.”
For 10 weeks, girls at five La Plata County elementary schools will attend these sessions. At the end they will make a day-trip to Telluride for a 5-kilometer run. Girls who 10 weeks ago wouldn’t have conceived that running 5K (3.1 miles) was possible will achieve their goal – and learn the confidence to tackle other seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
It began in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has quickly spread. Now Girls on the Run, which includes third- through eighth-graders, is in more than 200 cities, according to its website.
It came to La Plata County because a local parent had experienced it in another town and mentioned it to Frickel and others. Frickel, a counselor at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary, shopped the idea around to other schools. Stephanie Trudeaux, a counselor at Park Elementary, immediately bought in, and the program kicked off at the two schools in 2012.
Think back a few years if you have to. Look beyond your recollections of a simple, responsibility-free childhood. The truth is life isn’t always easy for kids. They’re worried about fitting in, about friends, about being picked on, about doing well at school, about what’s going on at home.
If they don’t have a model to solve issues, if they don’t have the self-confidence needed to deal with problems – many of which they’re facing for the first time – then life becomes even more difficult and even deflating.
“This is about empowering girls,” Trudeaux says as she prepares to coach a session at Park. “It’s about setting goals, learning strategies about bullies, about how to be good friends, how to do community projects.
“It’s more about the whole person versus just the athlete.”
Last fall, Bayfield and Florida Mesa elementaries started up programs. This year, Animas Valley Elementary joined. So now there are five schools, and a total of 108 third- through fifth-grade girls involved. (So far, La Plata has no sixth- through eighth-grade Girls on the Run programs.)
Finding enough volunteer coaches has been a little difficult, and a few girls have had to be turned away. Frickel urges anyone interested to contact her.
“The coaches are so positive and so great with the girls,” Frickel says. “I think that’s a big thing, too,” in making the program a success.
The Park coaches include Beth Brunso and Marjorie Brinton. Lindsay Neiman, Lindsay Keller and Liz Mora are “running buddies.” Brinton, a longtime runner and Durango Herald running columnist, says she got interested in coaching after writing about Girls on the Run.
“As a mom of daughters and a woman, I have a keen interest in self-esteem and empowerment of girls,” she says. “So the confidence and competence component really spoke to me.”
It’s not about competition and being the fastest, although it’s hard to argue that when you’re in a gym playing tag, as 16 girls are at Park, being quick is an asset.
Rabbit tag is one of the games the girls have democratically chosen to play – with Trudeaux’s help – among six suggestions. Several girls are chasers; if you’re caught you have to switch places and be a chaser. It’s pretty much chaos at the Park gym.
There’s lots of energy, plenty of high-pitched squealing, confusion and a healthy dose of running. Keeping the girls motivated is no problem. If anything, they’re overexcited.
Later, they play “ultimate duck, duck goose.” When someone taps your head and says “goose” you have to chase them. It goes well until one girl says “moose” instead of “goose,” momentarily baffling everyone in the gym.
“I think half the time, they don’t even realize they’re running because they’re playing the games while they’re running,” Frickel says.
A poster on the wall lists guidelines for the girls, often emphasized by the coaches: Encourage one another (no put downs), talk one at a time, include everyone in the group. In coed groups, these guidelines might not be easy to achieve.
“Sometimes, boys get in the way,” says third-grader Carter Neiman, daughter of Lindsay and Josh Neiman. “They say stuff like, ‘I’m faster.’ Boys sometimes hurt your feelings.”
Carter’s cousin Adde, daughter of Steffi and Dusty Neiman and also a third-grader, says she likes the program “because we don’t say negative things. People include us and everything.”
All the activities and games are tied to running in some fashion, and the program’s ultimate lesson will come Nov. 8 in Telluride when the girls run the 5K.
“If they really want to achieve a goal, they can achieve it,” Frickel says. “At the end when they come through the finish line, they have this big smile on their faces.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.