By Paige Schlichte
Thanks to a program called Girls on the Run, third- through eighth-grade girls in eastern Iowa are given the opportunity to stay active and entertained after school.
Girls on the Run is a national program that was started in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996. The program is now nationwide and has a chapter that serves eastern Iowa, primarily in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids Corridor.
Esther Baker, the executive director for Girls on the Run in Eastern Iowa, said the program is based on physical activity and aims for positive youth development.
“The program uses running as a circle point to teach girls a set of skills to more successfully navigate through life,” Baker said.
The program consists of two seasons, one in the fall and one in the spring. Each season lasts 10 weeks with the girls meeting twice a week after school.
Fun, interactive life lessons are taught in a game-playing manner by volunteer coaches. The curriculum aims to target emotional, social, and mental health through building confidence, competence, character, caring, and connectivity — the five Cs of the program.
In addition, throughout each season the girls train for a 5K run, in which they participate with their families and other community members at the conclusion of that year’s program.
Girls on the Run continually monitors the improvement of the girls before and after each season. A recent study by Maureen Weiss of the University of Minnesota found that girls participating in this program maintained the skills learned through Girls on the Run later in life.
The results concluded that 97 percent of girls say they learned life skills in managing emotions and making intentional decisions, and that the girls were employing these skills not only in school, but also at home and with friends.
Baker said the study also found Girls on the Run participants had life-long skills and were more well-rounded than those who didn’t participate in the program.
Sophia Mallaro, a University of Iowa senior who volunteers as a local coach for Girls on the Run, says she loves watching the girls grow each season.
“I think the program is so successful because it’s local people working as coaches and volunteering, and it’s backed up by a well-researched national organization,” she said.
Mallaro also said that in this way, the program has a grassroots feel, although it is more formally structured nationally.
Katy Ham, a sixth-grader at Horn Elementary, has participated in the program since her third grade year.
“I think it’s so great how they help us give back to the community, and I like how they help us solve day-to-day life problems like bullying and finding or choosing friends,” Ham said.
She also discussed how she enjoyed the program’s push to make the school and community a better place, especially through a community impact project that the girls do every season, which is her favorite part.
Ham’s father, John, has also witnessed the program’s benefits through his daughter. He stated that it’s given Ham more general confidence in social situations.
“I think having that team-based atmosphere has made it possible for her to feel confident in herself,” John Ham stated. “Having a model for staying active and taking part in a team are also very useful skills that provide a good framework for future development.”
The program has grown extensively in its last 10 years in eastern Iowa, with 500-600 girls from 35 different area schools signed up for the fall 2017 program. Baker hopes the program continues to grow and succeed in the area.
“We want to empower the girls early on in life,” Baker said. “So they can carry that through life with them.”