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Garner Elementary girls run toward success

NL school holds 2015 Girls on the Run program
Girls at Garner Elementary School in North Liberty participated in the school’s chapter of Girls on the Run, a national organization that uses running as a way to encourage wellness and healthy self-esteem in young girls. Garner’s team also decided to collect personal toiletry items to donate to the North Liberty Community Pantry, and gathered more than 500 items for donation in just a few weeks. (submitted photo)

NORTH LIBERTY– For girls who participate in the after-school program Girls on the Run, running is more than just a way to encourage healthy habits.
It’s a way to encourage a healthy sense of self-worth.
Esther Baker, Executive Director of Girls on the Run Eastern Iowa, has seen girls blossom through participating in the organization.
She recalled one student who came into the program with extremely low self-confidence. When given a compliment, she would respond self-deprecatingly and had difficulty interacting with the other girls and her coaches.
But by the end of the program, Baker said the girl had completely come out of her shell. She was excited to participate in the practices and even made friends with the other girls on her team. When her coach told her, “You know you’re awesome, right?” the girl quickly responded, “I know.”
“It makes girls feel strong. They feel confident and more empowered by the end of it,” Baker said.
Girls on the Run is a national, non-profit organization established in 2006 that uses running as a tool to boost the self-esteem of girls from third to sixth grade. The program teaches life skills, builds confidence and creates relationships through interactive lessons and running activities. Typically held during the school year as an after-school activity, Girls on the Run sessions end with the participants and their running buddies completing a 5K running event, offering a tangible culminating achievement for each girl.
It was that kind of positive impact that attracted Garner Elementary School parent Rhea Noel to the program.
Noel was responsible in getting the Garner team off the ground this past spring with 20 girls ranging from third to sixth grade.
“It’s a very positive program and great for young girls,” Noel said. “They’re going through some very instrumental times and changes in their lives.”
Girls on the Run of Eastern Iowa is a part of the larger organization Girls on the Run International. Each practice revolves around a different topic that has practical use in the girls’ every day lives, such as encouraging the girls to embrace their inner beauty and how to deal with bullies.
Though the cadence of the one-hour training session is similar to that of a typical running practice– stretching, warm-up, the actual workout, and a cool down– the lesson of the day is seamlessly woven into each of these steps.
For example, in a lesson on positive attitudes, coaches will start by discussing the topic with the girls as they stretch and warm up for the day. During the actual workout, each girl might be asked to make a positive statement about herself every time she completes a lap. Once the workout is over, they’ll cool down and have a group discussion about what they learned that day and how they felt the practice went.
Noel and Baker both said girls in this age group are often going through difficult transitions and need extra support both from adults and their peers. Baker said girls are more likely to experience bullying than boys of the same age, and that they often report having low self-esteem or a negative body image.
Girls on the Run, she said, provides these girls with tools they can use in their daily lives to overcome these challenges
“To get them surrounded with other girls who are hearing the same lessons, around coaches that are positive and encouraging, and to get them outside and active…it’s all a win-win,” Noel said.
And the benefits of positive change in their own lives extend to others as well.
The girls also learn how they can have a positive impact on the world around them, with each team completing a service project in the program’s final weeks.
A project, which the girls help organize and plan, can be anything from raising funds for a local non-profit group, to writing letters to service men and women or doing a neighborhood trash clean up.
Garner’s team chose to collect personal items for the North Liberty Community Pantry, and collected over 500 items in the span of just a few weeks. In addition, Noel said, an anonymous donor agreed to donate three items for every one that the girls collected.
“You could tell the girls were enthusiastic about the project,” Noel said. “They were just very excited.”
And to celebrate all the girls accomplished, the Girls on the Run Eastern Iowa’s 5K race, at which all 500 girls from the 32 area schools get the chance to run together, was held May 2 near Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids .
The non-competitive 5K is a way to give girls a tangible goal to work toward during the 10 weeks.
“The goal is not to train a bunch of elite runners,” Baker said. “The goal is to get girls physically and mentally strong and healthy.”
Upon seeing the girls of Garner’s inaugural team out on the course, some of whom had started with zero running experience, Noel felt extremely proud of how far they had come. One of their mottos, she said, was to always keep moving forward, and there was no doubt in her mind that this is exactly what they had done.
“It was rewarding to see them out there just running. You could see some were exhausted but they all did it and they did it well,” Noel said. “They had this smile and sense of accomplishment.”
Parents and students interested in signing up for the fall session of Girls on the Run can find more information at girlsontheruniowa.org.