"Girls on the Run, does that mean the girls are running from something?"
"It's really just a running program right?"
"So happy those girls without any opportunities have a place to go after school!"
I've lived and breathed Girls on the Run for about nine years. Watched girls come in as tiny little eight year olds, and just recently started to see those same girls graduate and head off to college. It's in the fabric of my 13-year-old daughter's life having been a little helper to start, who moved on to having her own team for three years, and continued having GOTR'ized everything in our home and busting out of our storage closets. I see and share inspirational videos & images plastered all over social media, and got to see first lady Michelle Obama mention Girls on the Run on television. So I really get taken aback still when someone asks me a question like these and I sometimes stumble into my lazy way of describing it: "It's an after school program for girls that uses running to build their self esteem."
We wrote and received a grant to produce some vides to tell our story, hoping to solve the issue of understanding what we do and why. We wanted to show local faces and capture their voices talking about Girls on the Run. They turned out great (check them out here), but it's still the little stories that happen each day I (or one of our fabulous coaches) am with the girls that really captures what we do. Take just this one for example.
This is a picture of my group from Bellevue Elementary last spring. I often don't have a group to myself for a whole season, but when we don't manage to get enough of the generous people who volunteer their time to be a coach, I jump in to fill a gap. As you can see it's pretty diverse group of girls with so much individuality and spunk. At least that's what the photo captures, but there are some qualities we see time and time again all of these girls share. It's at the core of what our lessons are trying to crumble piece by piece, and then rebuild with a new set of tools, language and strength.
Brandi, pictured to the far right, is like most every other girl who comes to Girls on the Run. For the most part she identifies herself as en extension of her best friend. When we break them into smaller groups, they cling to each other. When her best friend has a boy crush, she comes to the next session announcing her own boy crush. When her best friend doesn't want to run and is defying her coaches to even walk "with purpose" as I called it, she's quietly mimicking her. When her best friend giggling uncontrollably at circle time, she can't stop from doing it herself. They all are doing these sorts of things, and they all look to their coaches at moments like these and wonder, if only for a split second, should I make a different choice. These are the moments as a coach we look to seize! The consequences of not following along with her best friend at this stage aren't big ones, but by developing a new habit of doing what they know to be right for themselves now, they just might avoid big consequences in the future.
Practice 5k day came and we were finally getting off the school field and headed out to hit the neighborhood streets. My partner coach had a small group, and I had mine including Brandi and her best friend. In a last ditch effort to delay the inevitable practice 5k, her friend said she needed to go to the bathroom. This quickly became a group need with those standing near by and I could see Brandi being sucked in. I took a step towards the street and away from the bathroom, and said to Brandi "let's go." She took exactly three long seconds to decide, and broke from her friend to join me on the run.
We ran and walked, talked and picked small goals to focus on getting through the distance. We gathered with a few other girls not swayed by the bathroom trip and pushed each other long. We greeted the cows we ran near and surmised what they must think of these small beings floating by. We told stories of what our summers will hold for us and how beautiful the mountains nearby were. And then we finished the day back at our school, all with a sense of awe of what we just accomplished together. Her friend, and the others that were drawn into the delay, didn't finish the distance that day. As they were warned we had to turn them back early because of time. They didn't have quite the entire piece of prep that Brandi had for her final race day coming up.
The following week Brandi came to our sessions, surprisingly to me, and reported that she'd run over the weekend on her own. During the proceeding work out times she would grab my hand and ask "would you run with me?" Rather than the normal rebellion during a running activity, she and I made of game of one of our sprint relays. We imagined that we were racing to get to the exit of a long tunnel that was closing, and when we reached the threshold of it we'd leap over and into the other side before it closed. That captured the attention of a few of her teammates and they join in with us... a new norm formed.
When the final race day came, as the race director it for for me was full of craziness and details to manage. I had to leave my group in the capable hands of my co-coach, having already given them my final wishes for an amazing 5k experience. I watched them get their pink capes and bright sunglasses on from afar. Saw them gathered with their families and teammates in the crowd. Brandi was among the hundreds getting ready to run that day, but she broke from the start line to come find me at center stage as our performer Morgan Ovens was singing inspiration to the crowd.
She approached me only with wide eyes and no words, clearly full of apprehension of what she was about to be a part of. Even at the moment I didn't fully realize what the last few weeks had created between her and I. I put my hands on her shoulders and thought of the words I think she was searching for. "You can do this, I know you can. You run your own pace, your own race. You, Brandi have got this."
I didn't get to see her cross the finish line, but saw her running around the park after the race with her best friend full of smiles and happiness. I know she will need to call on that friend and others she will make along the way, but I know that we helped to plant the seed of making the choices that are true to her. She'll know by accomplishing that goal that day, that when it comes to even bigger goals, that she's got this.