Girls on the Run program teaches self-esteem

Twice a week, dozens of girls can be seen scampering along the track at Harper's Choice Middle School, a workout that will ultimately lead to a 5K run. Before their often-challenging cardio exercise, they take part in brief sessions centered on building self-confidence and reinforcing social skills.

The 10-week after-school program, called Girls on the Run, teaches the third- to eighth-graders self-esteem, a healthy lifestyle and social skills while they train for the Girls on the Run Fall 5K on Dec. 1 in Columbia.

The Central Maryland branch of Girls on the Run, which is based in Columbia, offers programs for girls in Howard and Carroll counties. It began two years ago with about 40 girls and has since become widely popular, growing to more than 600 girls from more than 40 schools.

The Central Maryland program is headed by Susan Michel of Columbia, who took up running about six years ago, competing in two Baltimore marathons. She first read about the organization in a running magazine and began coaching her first group about the time of the branch's inception.

"I knew what running had done for me. It made me feel empowered," said Michel. "I wanted to share my love of running with girls. Once I read about the program, it has self-esteem lessons, building confidence and just accepting you for who you are."

The nonprofit Girls on the Run, which was launched 16 years ago in Charlotte, N.C., also has branches in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

The girls run twice a week, with each run coming during a lesson. There are 20 lessons during the 10-week period, and girls begin training for the 5K about the 16th lesson, Michel said.

The program is divided into Girls on the Run for third- through fifth-graders and Girls on the Track for sixth- through eighth-graders. The group also conducts community service projects, including card making for kids in hospitals and nursing homes, and making food for local firehouses. At a time when socializing is often difficult, some girls say they enjoy getting together with others who share a common interest.

Said Elkhorn Middle School seventh-grader Amy Gardner, "It's fun to get to know new people, to run and get exercise I never would have time to do before."

"It feels good when we run and learn new things," said Gabriella Michel, Susan Michel's daughter and a sixth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle. "People encourage me."

Harper's Choice sixth-grader Kiara Martinez said the program allows her to spend time with girls "I normally wouldn't hang out with, and we get to talk about things girls go through, and we get to exercise while doing it."

Self-acceptance is among the first lessons taught during the program, which then moves on to such topics as healthy eating, bullying, gossiping and cooperation.

The program teaches girls about a time in middle school where they gravitate toward a state of mind it calls the Girl Box, when girls begin internalizing messages about being too big, too quiet or not smart enough. Program officials say it offers lessons that encourage girls to embrace messages that are "outside the Girl Box," such as standing up for what they believe and enjoying friendship and teamwork.

Susan Michel said that because of the self-esteem aspect of the program, it is not difficult encouraging the girls to get out and run.

"There is no teasing," she said. "Nobody judges anybody when they're in this group, so they feel very comfortable and they open up. We just hopes it translates into their real life."

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