Running for Health and Happiness
There are dozens of stories Sidney Povall can tell from her years of involvement with Girls on the Run, but one stands out.
"One amazing change I witnessed was a girl in fifth grade named Katie," says Povall. "She came from a family with a lot of kids, headed up by a single mother, and when she started the program, she just seemed like an angry little girl. She was sort of the blueprint for the child we're trying to reach: Her body was changing ahead of the curve, she was a little heavy, she didn't want to be involved, and she was extremely negative. Over the 12 weeks of the program, she really started to come out of her shell and act like a little girl instead of a sullen teen. It was all accomplished just by us being positive, energetic and loving each other."
Running for Good
Girls on the Run International was established in 1996 by Molly Barker, a four-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlete. Her mission was to celebrate the gifts of girlhood and to address what she calls girl-box issues. This is how Barker explains the "girl box" and how she broke through it:
"In 1976, I bought my first pair of running shoes. I was 15 then, and like most 15-year-old girls, trying to figure out who I was inside a changing body. I was desperately wanting to be liked by the beautiful crowd – popular with the boys. But I couldn't fit into the box the world placed over the spark of my spirit. The box told me things I knew in my soul weren't true: That the way I looked was more important than who I was inside; that being a woman meant keeping emotions like anger to myself; that having a boyfriend meant giving up part of my own identity. But I stepped in anyway. Hours spent trying to mold my body, my lifestyle, my life into what the box required were extremely painful.
"So I ran. I'd strap on those running shoes and head for the woods, the streets, wherever my feet would take me. I felt beautiful. Strong. Powerful. I felt a part of something greater than myself.
"On July 7, 1993, I remember it well. I put on my running shoes and ran at sunset. I'm not sure what instant of the run the box disappeared, but like a glass womb it shattered around me and pushed me out, born to an entirely new freedom. It was a moment of personal awakening."
While competing athletically, Barker received her master's in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She then worked as a high school teacher, track coach and a college counselor at a small private college addressing the needs of women with eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse problems and depression.
It was the combination of all these experiences and seeing these women who, as girls, never got a chance to run "out of the box" that coalesced Barker's dream of starting an organization aimed at helping preteen girls find themselves through running.
Building a Base
When Sidney Povall, currently operations director for the national organization (although she prefers the title Operations Goddess), of Charlotte, N.C., first joined Girls on the Run, it was as a coach. A runner herself, she had heard about it through the local running community and was eager to get involved.
"My job as a coach was mainly to facilitate the program at schools and around the Charlotte area," says Povall. "I worked directly with the girls and really loved it. It was very special."
The end result of the program, which is held in various locations around the world, is to train girls to run a 5K marathon. But there's a lot more to it than that. At the weekly meetings, the girls learn to warm up and cool down properly, they get fit with running activities that are team-based and teach them respect and cooperation.
Povall says that the benefits of a program like this are innumerable. Girls tend to leave the program with a great sense of accomplishment. They feel better about themselves and are better prepared to navigate the social pressures of adolescence.
"The program gives them self-confidence," says Povall. "They build a relationship with other girls and coaches, and they hear those lessons again of how to stand up for themselves and gives them important lessons about positive body image."
Popular in Pittsburgh
Girls on the Run was still a fairly new idea when Lauren Hensler of Allison Park, Pa., joined. She read about the program in a magazine in 1999 and called the national office to see about starting a chapter in Pittsburgh. By the spring of 2000, she had been through the training and incorporated a twice-a-week program that was sponsored by Magee Women's Hospital.
Hensler, who competes in ironman triathlons, said the program caught on so quickly that they are working to change venues for the 2004 race. Last year many family members wanted to participate along with the girls, so there were about 300 people – including babies in strollers – running the actual race.
After giving birth to her first child, Hensler stepped aside as coordinator of the Pittsburgh chapter of Girls on the Run. She sees herself staying involved as a runner and as the mother of a daughter.
"My daughter is already going with me running in her little jogging stroller, and I know this is something I want to pass on to her because it's been so positive for me," says Hensler. "As long as Girls on the Run is around, I know I'll be involved in some way."