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Run For Their Lives

Sports program helps girls' self-esteem

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On an overcast afternoon, nine elementary school girls are sitting cross-legged in a circle on the bright blue track at Hawthorne Middle School. Topic of the day: Spirituality.

"How is it like electricity?" asks Girls on the Run (GOTR) instructor Dana Baker.

"You can't see it," pipes up one girl.

"It gives you energy," offers another. Discussion ensues.

Once the girls grasp the concept, Baker directs them to run or walk eight laps around the track and to ponder the idea of spirituality. With each lap, they receive a sticker. At the end, they huddle and put their hands in the circle. "Think of something you're thankful for," Baker intones. After a pause, she concludes the meditation with, "We are thankful for all these things." Then they all break into a cheer, "Girls on the Run is so much fun!"

Ronelle Hoff thinks so. Asked why she's going through the program a second time, the 10-year-old says, "It's fun; you do a lot of neat things." She liked it so much the first time, she enlisted her sister Raven, 8, to participate with her this fall. "We changed the days of our piano lessons so we could come," Ronelle adds.

GOTR is an esteem-building program that uses running, walking and instruction to teach third, fourth and fifth graders. It began in Charlotte in 1996 and has spread to 72 other locations in the US and one in Canada. Founded by Charlotte native Molly Barker, the program will have reached about 30,000 girls through June 2003 and has been featured in People and Running World magazines.

"This is the favorite thing I do," says Baker, whose runs this GOTR class as part of her job at the Johnston YMCA. "The biggest change I see from the beginning to the end of the program is the confidence level and the "cool' factor."

She tells the story of a lanky girl who came from a family with lots of brothers and no sisters. "She wasn't comfortable being a girl," Baker recalls, "and everything in the beginning was, "This is stupid!' By the time the session was over, everything was "Cool.'"

Anna Hunter, who founded and operates GOTR in Atlanta, says girls often have trouble finding their place in the world. "Girls on the Run lets them know they can make a difference," she says. "We encourage them and hopefully that builds self-esteem. When you feel good about yourself you can do phenomenal things."

Hunter herself has done some pretty phenomenal things. The daughter of Alex and Sonia Coffin of Charlotte, she graduated from West Charlotte High in 1992 and was a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. After getting her degree in business, she worked two years as a financial analyst, among other things. A runner herself, Hunter jumped at the chance to manage a GOTR organization.

"It's not a job at all; it's a privilege," she says. "What speaks to me the most is instilling in these girls positivism -- to get each one to see the gifts she has, that she can step up and make a difference."

When Hunter's father Alex, a well-known Charlotte runner, went to Atlanta for the 5K run that wraps up each class, he saw one girl struggling to finish. So Hunter, her coach, fell in beside her and said, "I'll run you home." The support was all she needed to complete the race.

"There are lots of little girls who have never finished anything," Alex says. "This gives them so much self-confidence. When they finish, they shout, "I did it! I did it!'"

Meeting twice a week for 12 weeks, participants in GOTR learn to feel comfortable about who they are and to stand up for themselves. The goal is to avoid the "girl box" -- a term used by GOTR founder Barker. She uses it to describe how girls often define themselves not by what they believe and how they feel but by what people think and how they look. "Girls are too often focused on the external," she says.

Funded primarily through corporate sponsors and foundation grants, GOTR isn't affiliated with any religious group, has four permanent staff members and an annual budget of approximately $500,000. Based in a Dilworth bungalow at 1816 Lyndhurst Avenue, GOTR requires each location to fund and operate its activities. The central staff supplies curriculum and other support services.

The Charlotte program has 425 girls and 23 locations this fall, according to Charlotte coordinator Robin Overcash. Participants pay on a sliding scale based on family income ($15 to $130 per girl) and collectively receive about $10,000 in scholarships each year.

Lessons fall in three segments. The first part focuses on the girls getting to know themselves as individuals, examining their values, likes and dislikes and envisioning who they are physically, emotionally and spiritually. The second and third parts cover team-building skills and relating to the world at large. At the end of the program, each girl is encouraged to walk or run a 5K race.

The idea for GOTR grew out of Barker's experience. Not even academic accomplishments -- she has a master's degree in social work and an undergraduate degree in chemistry, both from UNC-Chapel Hill -- or four Ironman triathlons could fill a big void she felt in her life. Since the age of 15, she had turned to alcohol to fill that space. "It was my dark side - the girl box," she says "(When drinking), I would be flirtatious and wear clothes I didn't even like because I was trying to impress someone."

Not until July 7, 1993, when she went running after a heavy night of drinking, did Barker begin to turn her life around. "I hit bottom," she recalls. "There was a thunderstorm brewing, and the leaves were turned upside down on the trees. I remember stopping at Kenilworth and East Boulevard and thinking, "I've got to do something different. I can't feel like this.' I stopped (drinking) cold turkey that day, and my life went from black-and-white to Technicolor in that one moment."

Over the next several years, Barker held several jobs. One with the Chemical Dependency Center of Charlotte-Mecklenburg led her to the idea for GOTR. "I realized that prevention (of drug and alcohol abuse) is about giving people tools so when they have dark times, they can handle it. I wanted the program to be about values, connectedness and personal power."

By the fall of 1996, Barker was running her first GOTR program with 13 girls at her alma mater, Charlotte Country Day, where she had also taught chemistry for two years in the 1980s. She knew immediately she was onto something. "I saw 26 eyes filled with anticipation -- it was like Christmas," she remembers. "I left there with tenfold the energy I had when I got there. I felt good."

Barker had finally climbed out of the girl box, and now, thanks to GOTR, many girls are never climbing in.

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