Life-Changing After-School Program Combines Life Lessons and the Joy of Running

Article Ann E. Butenas Photography Tammy Pence

You better watch out! There are some girls on the run in a neighborhood near you, and they show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. No, they are not running from anyone or anything, but they are definitely running toward something absolutely amazing! In the Kansas City area and beyond, thousands of third through eighth grade girls are experiencing life-changing moments right on their own school grounds, enabling them to become confident, self-aware, empowered and healthy, while paving a path to become enriched, ambitious, and strong young women in the future.

Through Girls on the Run (GOTR), an international program founded 15 years ago, these young women are participating in an after-school youth development program that is educating them and preparing them for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.

Kathy Stone, an area executive director for Girls on the Run, has worked in the non-profit arena for 11 years and has been with GOTR for the past 18 months. While she has worked with other organizations on the intervention end of the spectrum through her past work in matters of child abuse, domestic abuse, crisis pregnancies, and the Head Start program, her role with GOTR is allowing her to reach young girls on the prevention side.

“Our mission is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running,” explains Stone. “During each 10-week season, one in the fall and one in the spring, the girls meet twice a week for 90 minutes after school. Volunteer coaches generously give of their time and talent to educate, uplift, and encourage these young girls through a well-researched curriculum of life skills lessons paired with the exhilarating joy of healthy exercise through running or walking together. Each season ends with a New Balance GOTR 5K race, where the girls complete their goal of running or walking in this fun community event and cross the finish line to receive their 5K medal.”

GOTR operates in Johnson, Leavenworth, Douglas, Miami and Wyandotte counties in Kansas and a sister council in Missouri serves Jackson, Clay and Platte counties.

“I facilitate setting up new program sites across the county,” Stone elaborates. “Each site, or location, consists of a team comprised of eight to 15 girls who are coached by well-trained volunteers. Stone anticipates that this spring they will have 540 girls participating in 45 program sites and in the Kansas City area, we could reach as many as 1,600 girls during both seasons of 2012.

To date, there are nearly 200 councils across the country and Canada that serve a combined total of more than 100,000 girls annually. It all began with the tenacious drive and ambition of a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete named Molly Barker, MSW, who founded GOTR in 1996. She took her counseling and teaching expertise with research on adolescent issues and set out to develop the first curriculum with 13 girls in Charlotte, NC. Through Barker’s program, girls not only train for a 5K event that builds necessary self-confidence along the way, but they also experience life lessons that create a strong emotional foundation upon which they can grow, learn, and emerge as healthy and confident young women leading future generations.

Barker was 15 when she first took up running as a means to get herself out of what she describes as the “girl box,” that place in which so many young girls begin to find themselves as they struggle to come to grips with their own identities, wondering who they really are as they are bombarded by the ever-prevalent negative self-talk and society’s often unattainable ideas and standards that suggest what a girl should look like, talk like, and feel like. In short, Barker believed the messages targeting young girls were very defeating and limiting, and she set out to change that dynamic.

As such, during a solo run in 1993, Barker had an epiphany of sorts and that inspiration led to the eventual creation of GOTR. Her first season with 13 girls was followed by 26 the next and then 75 after that, and as the program grew by leaps and bounds, it became GOTR International and was officially organized as a 501c3 non-profit organization in 2000.

Stone is extremely excited about getting out into the community and spreading the message to area schools about GOTR. Even after just a year and a half, she has seen numerous lives positively affected and emphasizes that this is way more than just an after-school running program, and some metro schools are quickly realizing that dynamic.

Longview Farm Elementary school in Lee’s Summit is celebrating its inaugural year with GOTR. Principal Ryan Rostine, known as “Dr. R” to the kids, enthusiastically champions the program and is excited about the positive impact it will have on the young girls who participate.

“I was introduced to this program by one of our parents,” notes Rostine, whose school opened in the fall of 2005. “It really appealed to me in that our staff is dedicated to not only promoting academics but also a healthy and active lifestyle through wellness initiatives. Girls on the Run definitely speaks to that end.”

Longview Farm began its GOTR program in March, and approximately 11 girls now meet every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at Summit Lakes Middle School and will do so through the end of this month.

Jen Guinty, a staff member at Longview Farm and recreational runner, is very excited about the opportunities this program will bring not only to the girls but to the families as a whole.

“The girls who are participating are so excited about it, and we are thrilled to incorporate the element of physical activity with a very positive and uplifting message,” emphasizes Guinty, who is one of the assistant coaches for the Longview Farm girls along with parent volunteers Andrea Wiltfang, Terri Skalitsky, and Judy Pezzetti.

Rostine concurs, “We need to respond to the needs of 21st century families and understand what motivates them and what we need to do to challenge them. Girls on the Run perfectly blends the message of good physical health and mental health. I believe it will truly set these girls up for greater success and increased confidence in the coming years.”

Longview Farm is definitely on the leading edge of meeting those dynamic needs of 21st century students and their families.

“When girls participate in GOTR, the healthy behaviors they achieve often extend to their families, with family members frequently joining them for the end-of-season race,” states Stone. “It also opens the door for parents to openly communicate with their daughters about sensitive issues that otherwise might not receive the necessary attention. We teach the girls life lessons, and also give the parents a guidebook so they can understand what the girls are learning. In many cases this facilitates the dialogue on some very in-depth topics with their daughters.”

For more information on GOTR, volunteer opportunities or to find a program site in your area, go online to gotrkc.org or call 913.766.0110.