Springfield’s Washington Park will once more be filled with young runners Saturday morning, as “Girls On The Run of Central Illinois” wraps up its 9th year of promoting healthy habits for girls in elementary and middle schools.
Peter Gray visited one team preparing for the 5K run to find out what girls are learning through this program that joins education with exercise.
Published study on Girls On The Run and “Developmentally Focused Youth Sports” (.pdf)
Organization’s Official Website (Central Illinois Council)
Girls On The Run Facebook Page (Central Illinois Council)
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Twice a week in the spring and fall, as lockers slam shut and students race to board buses outside Franklin Middle School, 8th grade literature teacher Angie Nesbit opens her classroom door to a small group of girls, who stay after school to work out while they work through their problems:
NESBIT: ” We just get together, we have fun and we run and we finish and that’s what we keep telling them – it doesn’t matter how long it takes you, as long as you finish, we’re here with you until you get to the finish line.”
Nesbit is a volunteer coach for Girls on Track, a program of the not-for-profit “Girls on the Run of Central Illinois”, whose mission is to empower girls at an early age to live a healthy and active lifestyle while educating them about issues girls may be confronted with, such as eating disorders, early sexual activity, drug abuse and depression:
NESBIT: “I think that much of the time girls get the wrong messages through media and through TV shows and movies, that they have to be the perfect size and look a certain way. But with Girls On Track, they get the courage to be who they are – and that’s the ‘out of the box’.”
The group promotes self-confidence, pushing each girl to fight social pressures to fit into a “box” or “mold”. Tiffany, a 7th grader explains how she struggled with that last year:
TIFFANY: “People would make fun of me, so I’d be kind of upset, but when I started Girls On Track I kind of just learned to do stuff I want to do and not worry about what they think about me.”
Improving self-esteem is just one part of the program. Abigail, a 6th-grader, says she has seen how a workout can help someone work through a problem:
ABIGAIL: ” One of the girls was struggling with homework. They didn’t understand anything at all and while we were running. Before, they were just like crying, in tears you know, and then they came out there and started running and just felt a whole lot better. They just feel happy, because while you’re running you don’t think about what’s stressing you.”
This program that’s designed to fight stress, boost self-esteem and improve the way girls feel about their bodies is something researchers call Developmentally-Focused Youth Sports. On the national level “Girls On The Run” has, in recent years, begun asking its teams of runners to participate in a long-term study to gauge whether the program can provide conclusive physical, psychological and social benefits for girls – results Jennifer Sublett, director of the local council, hopes to see right here in Central Illinois.
GRAY: We’re here following the girls as they’re warming up, walking around the halls of Franklin Middle School, and Jennifer Sublett, as you watch these girls smiling, laughing, walking – what are your hopes for them, 5, 10 years down the road?
SUBLETT: Well, number one that they’ll still be physically active. Whether or not they still participate in running programs is up to them, but if they are not doing physical activities on their own by this age, they’re probably not going to develop those at all. So I hope that they’re also physically active but that they’ve gotten through their high school years with a greater sense of self-confidence and really knowing who they are, especially through those years that can be a little bit tough on teenagers.”
Sublett says that since 2010, interest in her program has more than doubled, as more elementary and middle schools are getting involved. With that growth comes an increased need, as many girls from low-income homes rely in part on donations from the community to help cover the program cost.
SUBLETT: “We usually have about a third of our participants that are scholarship recipients, and this year, this program season – I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times – but we’re actually at 37 percent, so this is our highest scholarship rate.”
Girls on the Run of Central Illinois launched in 2004 with a group of 13. On Saturday, more than 300 girls from five counties will converge on Springfield’s Washington Park for its bi-annual 5K, where family members rooting the girls on – as well as community members signing up to run – will be sure to see and hear plenty of team spirit; from brightly colored racewear to cheers like this one:
CHORUS: “Girls On Track, we’ve got your back… WHOO… shake your tail feathers.”
Reporting from Franklin Middle School in Springfield, I’m Peter Gray.