Growing up isn’t always easy but an after-school program at the city’s three elementary schools is helping give young girls the tools and confidence they need to navigate the rocky road of adolescence.
“Girls on the Run,” a curriculum-based program that uses running to help girls in third and fourth grade develop confidence and self-respect, build character, foster an appreciation for healthy habits and give back to northeast Ohio, meets twice a week for ten weeks and is led by individual teachers and staff at each building. Registration wrapped up this month and the spring season begins in March. There are “Girls on the Run” chapters all across the country.
At Valley Vista Elementary School, the only school in the district to have both a spring and fall session, Counselor Dana Kesselem is excited to once again empower her next group of trail-blazers. Kesselem worked to implement Valley Vista’s program and serves as its main liaison. With the assistance of first grade teacher Elizabeth Radtke, second grade teacher Morgan Silinsky, Intervention Specialist Amanda Velbeck, Gifted Intervention Specialist Samantha Lumpkin, and third grade teachers Marguerite Greenlee and Elizabeth Boyer, the team will conduct practices through the hallways of the building until temperatures rise and they head outdoors for runs and group discussions.
“‘Girls on the Run’ incorporates running, but always with a lesson,” Kesselem said of the national program. “It’s not just running like an athletic team. Instead, we’ve worked with educators to build a curriculum. For example, we’ll have discussions about healthy eating, expressing ourselves effectively, what a good friendship looks like, how to take care of our bodies and how to resolve conflicts.”
The “Girls on the Run” season always concludes with an emotional and heart-warming 5K held in May at the University of Akron’s Infocision Stadium. The 5K welcomes the entire northeast Ohio chapter comprised of schools in six different counties. There is no first place in the race – every girl is a winner and receives a medal. In fact, each girl dons a race bib with the number “1” on it. The 5K also features activities and meet-and-greets with women working in various fields. Last year for example, participants heard encouraging words from a female judge and a female police officer.
“We always tell the girls to ‘just keep moving forward.’ You can walk, skip, hop, dance, just don’t stop,” Kesselem said of the 5K.
It’s a motto that extends beyond running.
“Girls deserve their moment and we have to get them thinking this way early on,” Kesselem said.
A major component of “Girls on the Run” teaches participants about healthy relationships and how to be a good friend – a lesson that’s proved particularly successful.
“Girl drama is a real thing and it’s intense,” Kesselem said. “When I first came to the school, I realized how early it’s starting, as early as first grade. I had heard about “Girls on the Run” from friends in other districts, so I investigated the program and how it could combat the problems we see here, and it really has helped. I’ll have girls come into my office to resolve a conflict and we’ll use language from the program. The program helps girls in understanding who they are, what healthy relationships look like, what a good friend looks like and how they can impact the world.”
Every season also concludes with a “community impact project” in which each team orchestrates a philanthropic drive or project. In seasons past, Valley Vista’s teams have made tutus for the young patients of Akron Children’s Hospital, collected luggage and duffel bags for children moving through foster care and led a bedtime drive garnering pajamas and books for children in family services.
Valley Vista’s team is typically comprised of about 20 girls. If more than 20 girls are interested in participating, a lottery is held, but historically, the school hasn’t had to turn anyone away. “Girls on the Run” is a national nonprofit organization that operates on a sliding scale, meaning families pay what they are able to afford towards registration, with full cost being $165.
Oftentimes, a girl’s participation in the program leads to her running in middle school and beyond.
“Sarah Franko, a teacher at the middle school who coaches cross country, approached me with an idea for a big-sister-little-sister practice 5K at our stadium and one of her runners had done “Girls on the Run” when she was in elementary school,” Kesselem said.
But even if they don’t pursue running, they come away from the program with a big toolbox of skills that enable them to interact effectively with others.
Building Principal Jeff Hill said he is extremely proud of the program’s coaches and participants.
“The service projects that the girls complete each session continue to have a positive impact on not only North Royalton but also surrounding communities,” he said. “The final 5K that the girls run in at the end of each session brings great pleasure when you truly know how hard our team has worked. Our ‘Girls on the Run’ program makes both Valley Vista and the North Royalton School District extremely proud.”
Contributing Writer