Girls on the Run in its 14th year of inspiration in Lehigh Valley
Girls on the Run, a national organization with a local chapter that encompasses Lehigh County and Bethlehem Area School District, strives to “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident, using an experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running.”
Through training for a non-competitive 5k event, the goals of Girls on the Run (GOTR) is to build girls’ self-esteem, and enhance their social, emotional and physical health.
The end of season events (5k races) will be held the first week of June. The fall GOTR program will begin in September.
Girls on the Run, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, was founded in Charlotte, N.C., with a single team of girls, and has grown to more than 2 million participants.
“Here in the Lehigh Valley, we are in our 14th year,” says Girls on the Run Council Director Elizabeth Fones.
“It started through an organization called Diakon Child, Family and Community Ministries. They took on the program. We are an affiliate council, meaning that we’re part of a larger nonprofit,” Fones says in a phone interview.
Fones has played several roles in GOTR for 10 years, first serving as a volunteer. She believes in the positive effects of the program:
“I’ve seen first-hand what it does for girls, and for adults as mentor coaches. Not just women, but men who run with the girls in their end-of-season 5k. It’s truly inspiring.
“I got to see my own daughter go through the program. I feel like it’s a privilege to be able to do something that I love doing and know it’s really helping people.”
Despite its name, GOTR is not a running program. Says Fones:
“It’s a life-skills building program. The girls learn skills like standing up for themselves, confidence, being healthy, all of those important things that girls in third through eighth grade really need to learn.
“It’s done through running and through games and by setting goals. The big goal, at the end of their 10-week program, is running a 5k. So they’re meeting twice a week, after school, for 10 weeks.
“I feel the physical activity of GOTR is extremely important, but additionally, building those life skills is just as important
“It’s not about winning, says Fones. “There’s nothing competitive about it. It’s just everybody being their own unique self and doing their best.”
Girls on the Run is for every girl, no matter her race, ethnicity, gender-identification or financial means. The program is about inclusion and accessibility. Scholarships are granted.
Changes were made to the curriculum this year to make the program safer for participants, such as social distancing guidelines and smaller crowds.
“It’s better to be on the safe side, so even when we’re outside, the girls and the coaches wear masks,” Fones says.
“This year is not what we would normally have. We had to cancel our spring season in 2020. It was a huge hit for us. In a normal year, we have a huge event with hundreds of people.
“This year, to accommodate for Covid-19, each of our program sites is having their own mini-5k. Ninety percent of our sites are at schools, so some events are right on school property.
“Especially now, [girls] really need to do things where they’re with other kids because the social and emotional part of what they’ve dealt with through Covid is just devastating.”
The goals and benefits of the organization are based on a justifiable need by girls in a particular age group.
“There’s research out there that says that by the time girls are in third grade, they are already starting to develop negative self-talk and poor self-esteem,” says Fones.
“That’s why it’s so important to start them that young in learning lessons they need to learn in order to have confidence.”
The curriculum also focuses on caring for others and the community.
“[The program] continues on to our middle school program which is called Heart and Soul. The middle school years are rough. Kids need a safe place and GOTR is a safe place to express emotions and things that are going on in a very safe atmosphere.
“They really get to know their adult coach mentors and develop great relationships, so they feel comfortable talking and learning with them.”
Seventy five percent of the coaches are teachers in the schools that have GOTR programs.
“All of our coaches are volunteers and go through training, including background checks,” says Fones.
“We have a wonderful group of community volunteers. Those are the people that we love to find because they’re not connected to a school. They’re just doing because they really want to make a difference.”
Fones has witnessed girls coming out of their shell as a result of the program for participants as well as coaches. It sometimes has a life-changing impact. Junior coaches are often local high school students. They can earn volunteer hours for National Honor Society or for college applications. “It’s a great way to give back.”
For those who’d like to participate in GOTR, information is at: www.girlsontherun.org. Click on the Connect Locally option.
Fones determines if a participant’s school is involved in the program. If not, there may be alternatives, such as the Upper Saucon Township Park or Grange Park, Upper Macungie Township, sites.
“We have a lot of really great supporters,” says Fones.
Major supporters of Girls on the Run include:
Diakon Child, Family & Community Ministries
United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley
Women’s 5K Classic
St. Luke’s University Health Network
Two Rivers Health and Wellness Foundation