In Health and Hope: Girls on the Run Teaches the Power of Positivity

Last Saturday Girls on the Run Manhattan converged at Asphalt Green on the Upper East Side to complete their 5K race in culmination of their Fall 2010 season. With 17 sites throughout New York City and 200 girls, the East River and Carl Schurz Park was filled with active, healthy girl runners in pursuit of finishing a champion.

Earlier in the week, I had trained with the Girls on the Run (GOTR) team pictured here at Sisulu-Walker in West Harlem. When Sisulu-Walker opened in 1999, it became New York City's first public charter school. Named after two African leaders, Walter Sisulu, who is acknowledged as the father of the South African anti-apartheid liberation movement, Sisulu was also responsible for recruiting Nelson Mandela into the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1940s where together they grew the ANC into the most prominent human rights organization that fought for the liberation of black South Africans. The school's name also honors Dr. Wyatte Tee Walker who is an internationally recognized pastor, author, lecturer and advocate for human and civil rights. He was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

Stretching in the gymnasium and then running along Harlem Meer in Central Park during their final practice before the race, the Sisulu-Walker GOTR team shared they were nervous, but also ready for the 5K. Each week the lessons accompanying the Girls on the Run program feature training runs, but also focus on topics ranging from peer pressure to bullying and trust to healthy eating habits. Cheyenne who is asthmatic and was known as "The Quiet Storm" last season when I coached her, because she will often quietly catch up and pass teammates, told me that this season she still found every lesson to be her favorite. Seated together in a circle when I asked each member of the Sisulu-Walker GOTR team why they loved coming to practice, they voiced communally how contagious the program's positivity. In fact, almost every girl shared that what she loved best about GOTR is how positive it is.

Sisulu-Walker coaches Jayme Heffler and Kristen Kawecki also spoke about how vibrant the GOTR atmosphere. Kristen came to Girls on the Run after seeing it featured in Health magazine while Jayme wanted to reach young girls. In an interview, Jayme shared, "I want to give back and I want to help these girls find themselves and their inner 'runner.' I love their energy, enthusiasm, and how they have each found their positive cord. I tended to be a non-athletic, yet energetic young kid, and found my sports later in college. Exercise and healthy eating are my mantras and I want to help these girls learn the importance at a young age. I also want to help them love themselves. GOTR is an amazing program for young, impressionable girls."

Holly Carmichael, race director for the Manhattan GOTR chapter and a former coach, recently related that with childhood obesity on the rise, the Girls on the Run program hopes to inspire lasting change in response to a national epidemic. "We are not only helping these little girls see the value in healthy habits, but we are developing in them a sense of agency around their health and teaching them to be resourceful in finding space to be physically active. We hope that these habits become ingrained in them, and that they continue to develop them as they grow into young adults."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Overweight and obesity in children are significant public health problems in the United States. The number of adolescents who are overweight has tripled since 1980 and the prevalence among younger children has more than doubled." With 16 percent of children age 6-19 years overweight and with minority populations being vastly more effected, the Girls on the Run program map reflects how they have stepped up their growth to have a presence in the majority of U.S. states in response. And, the plan is for the GOTR program to continue to grow.

While racing alongside Alexis (pictured above second from right), I listened as her GOTR running buddies cheered and supported her. I held her hand then hat, just as I did in the practice before the race when she asked me to run beside her on race day. I remembered how many of those 56 miles during Comrades 2010 in South Africa I ran for these GOTRM girls, for all little girls, to raise monies for SoleMates, the charity leg of Girls on the Run International, but in hope for all girls' true empowerment.

Girls on the Run's mission is to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living, and as race director Holly cheered each girl when she crossed the finish line on Saturday, she saw it happen.

One GOTRM girl was dragging at the beginning of the finish line chute. You could see - even from a distance - that she was exhausted. I thought she was going to start walking, as many of the girls do, but hoped she didn't as she was so close to finishing! All of a sudden she perked up, her posture changed, she smiled, and she sprinted to the finish line with such control and dedication and pride. It was an overwhelming moment of accomplishment, certainly for her, but also for all of us bystanders and her supporters. Her family squealed, I cried, and she just smiled. Certainly, GOTRM trains girls to run a 5K and so we are immensely proud that she completed it with such strength. But this was also an example of how many girls, if provided the opportunity to shine, will do so.
In that moment, another Girls on the Run champion was born.

Photo credit: Kristen Kawecki