Girls on the Run board President Shanti LaRue remembers the moment when she realized that the program may have changed her daughter, Courtney Ballard, for the better.
“There was a short time in middle school when she was frustrated with her peer group,” she said. “One day, she looked at me and said, ‘I think I’m going to go for a run.’ She put her headphones on and just went, and I thought, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if a seed was planted?’”
Girls on the Run is a nationwide program designed to empower girls in elementary school by giving them not only a group of girls their own age to connect with, but to show them how to use physical activity such as running to deal with stress and frustration. The girls meet twice a week with volunteer coaches and do service projects, do self-esteem exercises and, of course, run. At the end of the season, the girls run a 5k race.
The program was started in the Wood River Valley in 2002 by runner Shari Kunz, who began with 14 girls at Hemingway Elementary School. The program now reaches 150 girls a year at elementary schools across the Wood River Valley.
Mary Fauth, the program’s executive director, said the program is all about modeling to girls “the characteristics we hope for them to embrace,” such as the enthusiasm, confidence and health of the coaches.
“Modeling to the girls … what it means to be a healthy and confident young woman, and inspiring them to be who they really are inside is one of the greatest impacts that you can make to girls growing up with so many other messages coming at them,” she said.
According to the Girls on the Run website, a study conducted by the department of health behavior at the University of North Caroline in Charlotte, girls who participate in Girls on the Run programs have higher self-esteem, improved body image and eating attitudes and gain positive role models for the future. As a result, these girls may be less likely to smoke, engage in risky sexual behavior or develop depression as teens and adults.
Kylie Anderson, a Hailey native and senior at the University of Idaho, said she has participated with Girls on the Run in Moscow as part of community service with the Gamma Phi Beta sorority.
“I am minoring in women’s studies, so I am very aware of the challenges young girls and women face,” she said. “[Girls on the Run] gives girls the encouragement and skills they need to face issues such as eating disorders and bullies and things that young girls face growing up. “
Anderson said she did not participate in Girls on the Run in elementary school, but was involved with her high school volleyball and track and field teams. She said she can see the girls in the program enjoying some of the same benefits that she got from participating in sports.
“I always found it was a good way to combat stress and other challenges,” she said. “When I was having a hard day, sports was a positive and healthy outlet to go to.”
Hailey resident and former high school basketball coach Sue Radford said her daughter, Blair, joined the program when she was in third grade. Blair is now in eighth grade at Wood River Middle School, where she is a team captain in volleyball and basketball and was recently voted Athlete of the Year.
Radford said Blair not only gained leadership skills but also found role models through the women who coach.
“Having the women that run it, it’s a special program for this valley,” she said. “It gives the girls ideas that they can be in leadership positions as well—they’re not just seeing men in those positions.”
Radford also said she felt the program equipped Blair to deal with influences from the media, which could contribute to low self-esteem and body image.
“I think they make the girls aware of it,” she sad, referring to unrealistic images of women in magazines and on television. “If you don’t have any knowledge about what’s in front of you, you can’t decipher what’s happening with the advertising. I remember [Blair] talking about that—she understood what they were getting across, she could understand what the Girls on the Run program was trying to help with.”
LaRue said the program helps girls not only to recognize negative messages, but to put up filters to deal with those messages.
“I really liked the foundation being laid in elementary school for these girls so far as self-awareness and empowerment,” she said. “[They are] not just blindly going through life being affected by various things. It really gives the girls mental tools to be able to make the decisions they want to make.”
And, Radford said, it’s a lot of fun.
“[Blair] will remember it for life,” she said, adding, “Coaches don’t always know they’re making an impact, but they are.”
Interested in helping?
New coach training is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, from 9 a.m. to noon, and the season begins April 1. Coaches commit to three hours a week for a 10-week session and do not need to be runners—just energetic, vibrant role models. For more information, email Mary Fauth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com