Give a girl the right shoes, and she can run the world.
So says Girls on the Run, a nonprofit organization that aims to help young girls develop self-confidence by pairing life lessons with running. After school, girls in grades 3 through 8 meet to train for a race and are also taught by female volunteers about things such as respect, positive thinking and teamwork.
Girls on the Run serves more than 130,000 girls in some 200 cities across North America each year with the help of over 55,000 volunteers. In Utah, there are 78 teams in six counties, serving more than 1,200 girls. Utah County has eight schools in the Alpine School District and one in the Provo School District participating in Girls on the Run this spring. The local season began in March and culminates with a 5K race for participants May 31.
“We provide a safe environment where girls can express themselves, build confidence and learn from each other,” said Heidi Moreton, executive director of Girls on the Run Utah. “We believe it is critical to reach girls at an early age in order to teach them these important life lessons and to prevent at-risk behavior such as eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, obesity and adolescent pregnancies.”
Running is popular sport in Utah County, particularly among mothers. Many want to see their daughters develop a lifelong passion for health and exercise, said Lindsay Scott, Utah County liaison for the program. Scott, who moved to Pleasant Grove from Forest, Virginia, in 2012, helped Girls on the Run expand from Salt Lake to Utah County that same year.
“It was my mission and goal to bring this program to Utah County because I knew of its positive effects on these young girls,” said Scott. “Girls on the Run inspires girls to love who they are and, more importantly, love what makes them unique and happy.”
At Thunder Ridge Elementary in Saratoga Springs, sisters Emma, 10, and Abby, 8, run with their mom Becky Wardle, who is one of the volunteer coaches. Emma says that she likes how fast she runs — she would put her speed at “medium” — and also the life lessons from the program. She recently ran a mile and half at practice and learned about how to deal with peer pressure.
Emma’s younger sister, Abby, is autistic. It’s been rewarding to see the participants interact with Abby and cheer her on, said her mom, Becky Wardle, a 37-year-old Eagle Mountain resident. And it’s a great chance for Wardle and her daughters to spend time together after school.
At Orchard Elementary in Orem, the response to the program this year was strong enough that they split the program into two teams of some 15 girls each. Co-coach Natalie Ririe, a 31-year-old Orem resident, said she hopes the participants will receive the confidence to avoid situations later in life that could be dangerous, hurtful or unhealthy. And she hopes it will teach the girls at a young age that they can do hard things.
“Starting out life knowing that you can be a member of a team and run an entire race is very empowering,” she said. “It makes things seem more doable.”