Running group keeps girls moving in the right direction

Any parent who has seen their daughter made the subject of a vicious rumor, watched her struggle with insecurities, or can remember their own childhood mean-girl exclusions can attest: it’s not easy being a girl.

Girls on the Run is an after-school program that wants to help young girls find their inner strength with a curriculum that aims to give them the emotional equipment to deal with life’s hurdles, while also training for the physical demands of a 5k run.

Over the course of 10 weeks in spring and fall, girls in grades 3–8 (ages 9–14) are taught how to handle peer pressure, bullying, cliques, popularity, eating issues, and media perception, through physical games and discussions. (Editor’s note: Kids younger than age 8 do not benefit from distance running, and can actually be injured doing so. Running for kids ages 5–8 should come as part of play and fun games.)

Rina De Donato has been its passionate CEO since she started the program in Canada 10 years ago from her kitchen table. She had taken up running later in life, but after feeling the thrill of crossing the finish line of her first marathon, she had an epiphany, remembering a program she’d read about in a magazine.

De Donato contacted Girls on the Run International founder Molly Barker to find out more, ultimately quitting her job to start the Girls on the Run program in Ontario. What began with 21 girls in York Region has now expanded dramatically with over 16,000 girls and 100 schools in Ontario, and B.C., with the hope to be as widespread as its U.S. counterpart, where DeDonato says the organization is as well-known and in demand as Brownies.

What makes Girls on the Run so special is its non-competitive approach, allowing for a running program, that is, as DeDonato happily explains, “as much for the girl who is a star athlete as it is for the girl in the back of the gym class, saying ‘please don’t pick me.’ Lessons are organized with incremental increases in endurance and duration, but because it’s non-competitive, girls can walk, run, skip or jump, and still be able to complete the 5k event.”

Also worth noting is their mandate to never turn anyone away for financial reasons. Yes, the program costs to enter, but the staff’s dedication has ensured that of the 1,600 girls registered this year, 512 were fully supported. Of that 34 percent of girls, they either filled in scholarship applications or were helped by corporations like Good Life Kids and RBC, or partnered with and adopted schools to bring them into program.

One thing Girls has going for it is its strong volunteer base, which DeDonato believes comes from the fact that the coaches get as much from the experience as the girls.

I saw this first-hand at my daughter’s school council meeting where Jana Seymour, regional co-ordinator and coach — there with her own daughters who’d enjoyed the program — was visibly emotional, extolling the merits of the program as she told the story of a timid girl who she watched come out of her shell and blossom.

De Donato is equally moving as she talks about how the program helped her daughters, one of whom is currently working for the organization, saying, “I saw in my girls how they were able to overcome tough situations from their new earned confidence. Now as adults I see community engagement and compassion, and how they treat and respect their friends, and of course, they are still active and have done runs with me.”

I think that says it all. Girls on the Run is staging a family event at Fairy Lake in Newmarket on June 22!

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