Girls on the Run

Montgomery Preteen Girls' Running Program

Girls on the Run members Aranza Sanchez, front left, Mekilt Belete, rear left, Selome Seyoum, Finote Bizuneh, rear center, Isabel Argueta and Lizbeth Molina participate in a program designed to help preteen girls.
Girls on the Run members Aranza Sanchez, front left, Mekilt Belete, rear left, Selome Seyoum, Finote Bizuneh, rear center, Isabel Argueta and Lizbeth Molina participate in a program designed to help preteen girls. (By Susan Wilson)

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By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fifth-grader Natalee Sosa remembers when she used to sit around a lot. She wouldn't even think about exercising.

But that was before she joined the Girls on the Run after-school program at Highland View Elementary School in Silver Spring. During semiweekly sessions last year, she gradually trained to run longer distances and surprised herself by completing a 5K run at the end of the nine-week program.

That's why Natalee said she did not hesitate to join about two dozen other girls on the field behind her school as the spring session of the running program met on a chilly afternoon last Thursday.

"I'm back because I really enjoyed it last year. I learned about how to move and to make new friends," she said. "Before, I would never ask anyone to go running. I was like a couch potato. Now I'm active. I do taekwondo."

Helping girls become more active is just one focus of the international nonprofit Girls on the Run program, whose goal is to encourage "preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running," according to its Web site. The organization oversees more than 150 volunteer-run councils in the United States and Canada, which train and support volunteer coaches.

The opportunity to help girls learn how to make healthy choices as they head into adolescence is what led parent Stacy Farrar to start a program at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School in Chevy Chase, where her daughter, Julia, is a third-grader.

"As I sat there at the training, I was thinking, 'Every kid needs to have this.' I want our kids to be able to say no and to feel good about it," she said. "Girls with puberty coming earlier are faced with some issues that we faced when we were older."

In Montgomery County, parent volunteers are running programs for girls in grades 3 through 8 at about 30 public and private schools this year. Participation costs $150 and includes registration in a 5K race in May. Scholarships can reduce the cost to as little as $10.

Each program is guided by a curriculum that combines lessons on building self-confidence and making healthy choices with physical games and running activities. The focus is on self-improvement, rather than competition, coaches said. In addition to the physical activities and lessons, the program also requires groups to conduct a community service project.

At Highland View, parent-coach Sue Wilson is in her third season, coaching about two dozen third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, several of whom are repeat participants. The girls meet twice a week on a field behind the school and use the perimeter as a running track.

During the first month or so of the program, the girls focus on things such as learning to respect themselves and others and to avoid gossiping and other bad habits. The second half of the program teaches the girls about being team players, Wilson said.

"They think the big crux is about preparing for the 5K, but along the way, there's all this character development stuff where you learn about yourself," said Wilson, whose daughter, Abby, a fourth-grader, is a participant.


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