On May 20, thousands of girls ages 7 to 11 will descend on George Mason University as part of a really cool program called Girls on the Run. As members of a twice-a-week after-school activity in Northern Virginia elementary and middle schools, the girls work on their fitness through running, learn about health and decision-making, and have a bunch of laughs without a bunch of dumb boys around.
And sometimes, they learn to help others. At Terra Centre Elementary School in Burke on Monday, two dozen girls, from first to sixth grade, ran a hilly five kilometers (three miles) to raise money for girls from another school in Manassas, so that those girls could attend the mass run/party at George Mason later this month.
Weems Elementary in Manassas could not squeeze out the $200 or so needed to rent a bus to get their Girls on the Run team to George Mason. So the Terra Centre girls collected pledges from family and friends, and raised $625, their coach Kim Copenhaver said, which may be enough not only for the Weems girls bus, but also for shirts and shorts, and maybe even a second bus for the girls’ families and supporters.
This year, the program expects to have more than 3,400 girls in the season-ending run, and each girl must have a “running buddy” — that means 6,800 runners on the GMU campus. Factor in friends, organizers, supporters, and you’ve got the makings of a joyous mob scene in Fairfax City that morning.
Girls on the Run of Northern Virginia launched in 2001 as a nonprofit organization at two schools. Now it’s in more than 200 elementary and middle schools in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and Alexandria, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park.
It meets in the fall and spring, serving about 7,500 girls, and “it’s not a running program,” Copenhaver said. “It’s a curriculum-based program, each lesson has a topic. It could be drugs, or alcohol, or tobacco, or standing up for yourself, choosing good friends. It’s specifically designed for the pre-teen girl set. We teach them healthy lifestyles, good choices.”
Plus it’s got a kind of edgy name. They’re “on the run,” like they just robbed a bank or slapped some guy around. While also learning how to eat right.
The program started in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C. It has now spread nationwide and served nearly 100,000 girls last year, aided by more than 41,000 volunteers. Girls on the Run is intended for third- to fifth-grade girls, and Girls on Track is for sixth- to eighth-grade girls, all with the goals of integrating running with the values of empowerment, responsibility, diversity and connectedness.
On Monday, Copenhaver and a number of Terra Centre moms were constantly encouraging their corps of future Mary Deckers, gently working on running form, even schooling them on how to take the little cups of water, squeezing them into funnels while you keep moving, and drinking or dumping them on your head before continuing on.
No one complained about the distance or the hills around Terra Centre, an underground school on Burke Centre Parkway in Fairfax County. When some lagged behind, those who had finished ran back out to the course and ran back in with their teammates.
“It’s a really good exercise for me,” said fourth-grader Lauren. “It has a lot of good lessons. I’ve gotten better times, I can run distances.”
Emily, also in fourth grade, said the program has helped her “get stronger and fit, to get better at soccer. Also, how to be a good person.
Sixth-grader Emily said, “I find it really fun because it gives girls a chance to make new friends who are compatible.” I told her I did not know that word in sixth grade. Her mother, Jenn Glahn, helps coach and said one of the many things she liked was that it “gives them a safe place to talk about these things. They know the boys aren’t around.”
On Wednesday, Copenhaver delivered the money her girls had raised to Weems and their coach, Cara Mitchell. The Weems girls were “so excited,” Mitchell said. “They were jumping up and down and just so grateful that someone was helping them.”
She said her team of 23 third- and fourth-graders would get matching shorts and Gatorade for the race this year, and she would save some of the money for next season’s big run. “It’s just really cool,” Mitchell said. ”It’s the definition of Girls on the Run, girls helping girls.”
Note: The last names of the girls in this story have been removed at the request of Girls on the Run, who said it violated their policy of not using the full names of their young participants.