The first step toward learning to fly is learning to run.
That’s the philosophy of Girls on the Run, an organization designed to keep 8 to 13-year-old girls in South Jersey moving and teach them some important lessons about life.
Anne Klein, program director for Girls on the Run in Burlington County, says the organization is much more than a running club.
“I always say first and foremost we’re a self-esteem building program,” Klein says. “People look at it like, ‘Oh, it’s a running team,’ and we’re not. I look at running as a great addition to what we do. We’re really about girl power, and we have a lot of fun, making new friends, building on those life lessons and getting to do cool activities at the same time.”
During 10-week seasons in the fall and spring, groups of girls in 3rd through 5th grades meet biweekly, often at their school or a local park. Coaches lead lessons that focus on themes such as self-esteem, body image, friendship, personal potential and community impact. At the end of the lesson, the team goes for a run.
Michelle Gasiorowski, who coaches a Girls on the Run team in Riverton, is dedicated to spreading the word about the program in South Jersey. She’d like to see the life lessons the curriculum offers shared with girls across the state.
“Our curriculum has lessons on everything from gossiping to bullying to peer pressure,” Gasiorowski says. “We sometimes touch on topics that are a little more serious for the girls, but they’re so open about it.”
“During one lesson last year, we were talking about beauty standards and how the media portrays beauty,” she continues. “We put some magazines out and said, ‘What do you think about what you see?’ They were so quick to point out, ‘She’s got so much makeup on, I bet that’s airbrushed.’ We talked about how we have so much more to offer than our looks, or what other people think of the way we look.”
Klein says the curriculum is specifically targeted at girls in 3rd through 5th grades, to build their confidence and teach them pressure and stress-management skills before they reach middle school.
“We’re giving them skills and tools they can use in the years where it gets even more difficult to be a girl,” Klein says. “We’re trying to get them when they’re most susceptible to hearing these messages from adults. We’re giving them skills they can take into those years when there’s a lot more pressure and a lot less openness to guidance.”
Girls on the Run began in North Carolina in 1996 and has grown to include 200 groups – called councils – in all 50 states. In 2015, the organization served more than 185,000 girls. The program is popular in North Jersey, and Gasiorowski is deeply passionate about helping it grow in South Jersey.
“I’ve been working hard to get the word out, emailing and talking to anyone who will listen to me,” she says. “The growth of this program in Burlington County has been very grassroots, but it definitely is working.”
Lori Kapferer, director of community relations for the region, says the aspect of the program many girls like the most is the community service project they’re expected to complete.
“The part a lot of them find most exciting is the community impact,” Kapferer says. “They get together as a team and say, ‘OK, what does it mean to be a community, and how can we have a greater impact on our town?’ They come up with a project and work together to complete it.”
Gasiorowski says she’s been amazed at her team’s ability to conceive and execute community service projects almost entirely on their own.
“The first year we cleaned Memorial Park in Cinnaminson, where we hold our meetings,” she says. “Then the girls wanted to work with K9 dogs, so they made toys for the dogs and donated them to the police department. The K9 unit came out and did a demonstration for the girls to thank them. Most recently, we collected books and made cards to donate to patients at CHOP.”
In addition to the life lessons and community service, there is, of course, the running. Over the course of 10 weeks, the team goes for progressively longer training runs to prepare for a 5K race at the end of the season. Gasiorowski says the physical activity itself serves as a good outlet and stress reliever, and completing the 5K comes with a huge confidence boost.
“Whether you’re an adult or a child, you can use any sport, especially running, as an outlet,” she says. “We talk a lot about how running can help you relieve stress and work through things that are putting a lot of pressure on you. We practice together for the 5K, and at the end we always say we are all going to finish the race. It’s an incredible confidence builder for girls at that age.”
While a typical Girls on the Run team is made up of girls from several different towns and school districts, Gasiorowski says they form a deep bond.
“In any race, someone has to be last,” Gasiorowski says. “Last year we had one running who was kind of lagging behind, and the other girls had all finished. They went back onto the track, ran back out to her and finished the last lap with her. They ran her in as a team, and to see something like that is just amazing; it means they heard the things you tried to teach them about togetherness, and leaning on one another.”
Crossing the finish line, Klein says, is the first step toward teaching a young girl she can accomplish what she puts her mind to. The idea, she says, is to create an entire generation of young women who are unafraid to pursue their dreams.
“We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential,” Klein says. “We teach them it’s OK to be bold, to pursue whatever you think you can do.”
Registration for the spring session is now open, and the season starts April 1. To learn more and to sign up, click here.