SOLON– They run for the health of it.
Also, they run for the challenge, the camaraderie and the fun of it.
Solon girls in grades three through six are on the run– literally– as participants in the international program, Girls on the Run.
Solon’s primary organizers and co-leaders of Solon Girls on the Run, Sandy Kessler and Tracy Hufford, volunteered for the program in neighboring North Liberty last year. They liked it so much they approached Johnson County Girls on the Run– the umbrella organization that conducts the program throughout elementary schools in the Iowa City Community School District– to ask if they could bring the program to Solon. They were pleased to have the opportunity to share the program’s curriculum, structure and other benefits with young girls in the Solon community.
“We gathered a group of Solon women who we know believe in an active lifestyle, and we ended up with eight to 10 of us who were committed to helping coach,” said Hufford.
The Girls on the Run mission is to “educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.” The method is to pair running and physical activity with a creative curriculum full of lessons and messages about strong self-esteem, good citizenship, positive life choices and supportive friendships.
For 12 weeks, 32 Solon girls in grades three through six met twice each week at Lakeview Elementary. Before hitting the running trail, group leaders would introduce the day’s lesson, conduct games and lead in-depth discussions on self-respect, making choices and making friends.
“We incorporate those life lessons into running and active games, all the while training to run further and further distances in preparation of running a final 5K,” said Hufford. Warm-up exercises and endurance-building activities, including running increasingly longer distances, were part of each session as well.
At the end of the day, the girls would gather again to process the group’s discussions and activities. A favorite wrap-up ritual, though, was choosing recipients of the Energy Award.
“Every session, they would nominate a peer, not for who could run the fastest or farthest, but who showed the most of the character traits we look for, like cheering on others, staying positive, being encouraging and helping others in need,” said Hufford. “They were thrilled to select their peers; they would put them in the center of the circle and do a cheer for them.”
In addition, the group chose to do a collective community service project; making treats and writing thank-you notes for teachers at Lakeview and Solon Middle School.
Hufford said the typical number of girls to sign up for a new program is about 15, so they were surprised when Solon came up with 32 enthusiastic participants. Rather than turn girls away, Hufford and Kessler split into two groups to be able to better facilitate activities.
“The parents have been so supportive, and the girls are so into it,” said Hufford.
It’s a testament to the whole community, Hufford believes.
“I think in Solon, we tend to embrace that lifestyle of being active, and making sure kids have opportunities to stay active,” said Hufford. “Also, parents here are involved enough to know that this program addresses some of the issues girls will have as they grow up, and it offers information on how to handle that. Parents recognize that the more messages we send on navigating some of the tough things about growing up, the better off kids will be.”
The entire group participated in a practice long-distance run on Oct. 27 at the Solon Recreation and Nature Area trail, a 1-mile round trip. Each girl had a running buddy– they included parents, siblings, friends, high school cross–country runners and program coaches– to run alongside them and encourage the completion of three passes around the trail. Running buddies were instructed to motivate the girls to do their best and always keep moving forward.
“They also worked with each girl on an individual goal,” noted Hufford. “Every girl completed her goal. That was quite a feat. It was incredible to see the looks on their faces as they ran with their buddies.”
Indeed, every runner took the challenge seriously, and every single participant found a group of hooting, hollering and cheering supporters waiting for her as she broke through a green ribbon at the end of her run.
The connotation was unmistakable; every girl is a winner here.
Fifth grader Jenna Bachus said Girls on the Run does teach some basic techniques on to become a better runner.
“You learn how to pace yourself, and how to run properly,” said Jenna. But there’s been so much more to learn, she added.
“We talk about good citizenship, bullying, and making new friends. When you choose to be a Girl on the Run, you are choosing to do the core values, too; being trustworthy, caring, and being nice to others.”
Ashley Stinocher is a third grader at Solon who signed up for Girls on the Run because she enjoys running, but also has gained more than a faster gait.
“We have learned to keep going, do your best and have fun,” said Ashley.
Stella Mesch, a third grader whose mom Jolene was both a running buddy and also a coach for Solon Girls on the Run, talked about the way running with her mom made her feel.
“For my first mile, I couldn’t stop smiling,” said Stella.
Jolene Mesch said another comment she heard during the practice run brought a smile to her face, too.
“Reegan said she felt like a superstar,” said Jolene, referring to Girls on the Run participant Reegan Helle. “That was cool.”
A more tangible goal of the Girls on the Run movement is to have all girls participate in a final 5K run/walk, this year set for Nov. 19.
Reegan Helle took the opportunity to reiterate the goals of the Girls on the Run program in her own way:
“We talk about how to help other girls get active too,” said Reegan. “It’s important to be active. If you sit around and watch TV, you’re going to be slow and you won’t enjoy your life. If you are active, and get outside, you are a happier person.”
With 32 girls running, fighting through fatigue, pushing on to the end– and smiling all the while– it was easy to see: Girls on the Run is right on track.