Running program helps develop ‘strong women’

Yahaira Pereida, 9, is congratulated while crossing the finish line of the Girls on the Run 5K on Saturday at A.L. Gustin Golf Course. Daniel Brenner/Tribune
Yahaira Pereida, 9, is congratulated while crossing the finish line of the Girls on the Run 5K on Saturday at A.L. Gustin Golf Course. Daniel Brenner/Tribune

Kellie Gregory sat in on three of her daughter Julia’s after-school running practices this fall at Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School.

Julia, a fifth-grader, takes part in the practices twice weekly through Girls on the Run, a program that teaches girls self-confidence through running.

After taking part in a 12-week curriculum, 124 girls in grades 3 through 8 capped their running season Saturday with a 5K at A.L. Gustin Golf Course in Columbia.

“We train our bodies physically, mentally and emotionally to run a 5K,” said Sara Loveless, director of Heart of Missouri Girls on the Run, an affiliate council of Girls on the Run International.

In the three practices she watched, Gregory, who ran the 5K with Julia, said she saw a noticeable difference in her daughter’s behavior. Julia can be shy, she said. Not anymore.

“I saw a lot of girls opening up just in the three times I was there,” Gregory said. “She started volunteering more and raising her hand to answer questions.”

You should see the change after 12 weeks, said Maureen Kokoska, a coach coordinator with Heart of Missouri Girls on the Run. She said she especially enjoys the lessons about inner beauty and how to deal with bullying.

Jennifer Caldwell, another parent of an Alpha Hart Lewis participant, said just this week her daughter was able to communicate and “open up” with her parents and teachers about a bullying incident in school.

Those are skills she learned through the Girls on the Run curriculum, Caldwell said.

“We’ve raised some really strong women,” she said, slightly out of breath after finishing the run. “This program makes us realize that even more.”

Linking up those life lessons with the physical aspect of running helps participants acquire those skills better than they would in a classroom setting, Kokoska said.

“You have a goal in mind,” she said. “And we preach a healthy lifestyle; not just to feel good about yourself but to be healthy, too.”

Kokoska said she likes to share a personal example, about how she quit smoking after 30 years and took up running eight years ago, to inspire younger girls to improve lifestyle habits and do the right thing.

“Look at me now,” she said. “I’m doing half-marathons.”

Girls can be much more receptive to those messages if you engage them early on, Loveless said. That’s why the program begins at such a young age.

“We find at about eighth grade, we see them being more of what they think they’re supposed to be,” Loveless said. “We call it getting boxed in.”

Girls on the Run keeps its members literally running out of those constraints. Gregory said her daughter Julia wanted to finish the run, a full 3.1 miles around the hilly golf course, in 55 minutes.

Mom and daughter, running as a pair, exceeded that goal. They finished in 45 minutes.


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