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Program helps girls gain traction on teen challenges

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By Deb Hurley Brobst

It’s pretty obvious that an organization called Girls on the Run teaches girls how to run.

But that’s only a small part of what girls in Girls on the Run does.

The girls in third through fifth grade do community service projects, support each other and learn valuable lessons about navigating the challenges of their teen years.

“For me, the biggest struggle for people to understand is that it’s not a running program,” said Karen MacFarquhar, a coach at Wilmot Elementary School and a coordinator for the program in the foothills. “It’s the curriculum we have on all the issues young girls deal with, and how we incorporate it into the program.”

There are Girls on the Run teams at Bergen Valley, Wilmot, Parmalee, Marshdale and West Jefferson elementary schools. Wilmot and Marshdale have had programs for years, while the other programs are in their first year.

Girls on the Run is a 10-week program that operates in the fall and spring. Usually the teams  — ranging in size from eight to 24 girls — meet twice a week with coaches who are moms, teachers or other community members. Schedule changes are made to accommodate individual schools. For example, Parmalee’s and Bergen Valley’s team meets once a week, and Marshdale has a fall program only.

There’s also a program called Girls on Track for middle-school girls, though it hasn’t been started at either West Jeff or Evergreen middle schools.

Coaches lead girls through warm-ups, role-playing scenarios and games to discuss bullying, standing up for themselves and learning about cooperation, and yes, they do run.

About 1,600 Front Range girls participated in the 5K run at City Park in Denver on Saturday that culminated the spring program. Dressed in pink T-shirts, some ran, some did a combination run-walk, but all finished. It shows the girls that if they work hard, they can achieve anything.

“I truly believe in this program,” MacFarquhar said. “It’s incredible. We will have moms burst into tears when their daughters go across the finish line (of the 5K). Their young girl is learning the importance of taking care of herself and standing up for herself — that’s what we teach.”

Girls on the Run is an international program that came to the Denver area in 2005. It’s also been at Wilmot since then.

MacFarquhar, who doesn’t have children, is a runner and a family therapist.

“Girls on the Run is the perfect fit for me,” she said. “This was a way I could do something in Evergreen for the next generation of women. For me, it’s so exciting to have so many girls up here involved in the program.”

Susan Guest, the parent of third-grade twin girls, is a coach for the newly formed Bergen Valley team. Guest wondered if she was the right fit for the program when she was asked to be a coach.

“Me, coach a running program? Really?” she quipped. “I work out, but I’ve never been particularly a runner. Now I look at it as a leadership-type program.”

Guest, with the help of three other coaches, works with 23 girls once a week.

At Parmalee, Jeannine Rauch works with 15 girls this spring. In addition, a couple of sixth-graders are part of the group because their parents wanted them to get the program’s positive messages.

Rauch said some girls get into the program for the running aspect, while the others are there for the empowerment aspect.

“I really like the philosophy of reaching these girls early before at-risk behaviors become escalated,” Rauch said. “We role-play scenarios. What would you say if someone says, ‘Come on, try this. Everyone is doing it.’ It really hits home (for the girls) that everyone in this world is unique, that’s OK, and you don’t have to fit in the mold.”

She said time flies by because the curriculum is laid out for each lesson.

“All of a sudden, they have learned a lot, and they’re a little bit healthier physically and spiritually,” she said.

Ann Hoy, a fourth-grade teacher and Girls on the Run coach at West Jeff, also has some middle-school students work as mentors for the 16 girls in the program.

“I think it’s great to see the confidence in the girls, how they are becoming strong — not necessarily physically, but mentally,” Hoy said. “It’s been really a fun, powerful program.”

Another component of the program is community service. The girls sponsor drives for local food banks, help clean up the grounds around their schools and volunteer at area events.

Last fall, soon after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, the Wilmot Girls on the Run held a bake sale and raised $89 in 15 minutes. They donated the money to a Girls on the Run group in Long Beach Island, N.J., and it was used to buy some of the girls new shoes since they lost theirs in a storm. Last week, the Wilmot girls received thank-you notes and a photo of the East Coast team with its new shoes.

“You made a difference in the girls’ lives a long way away,” MacFarquhar told the girls.

The Wilmot girls say they’ve learned a lot from Girls on the Run.

“Running is fun, and you learn a lot of life lessons,” said fifth-grader Kayleigh Evans.

The girls talked about having issues such as being victims of bullying and having fights among their friends. They agreed that Girls on the Run provided them with tools to address those issues.

“I have learned how to solve the problems in some situations,” said fourth-grader Anna Brooks.

For these girls, participating in the 5K run that culminates the spring program was icing on the cake.

“It makes you feel like you won the war,” Kayleigh said, “and makes you want to do another one.”

“We’re on top of the world,” fifth-grader Ruth Mosch added.

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041.

More info …

The cost for Girls on the Run is $145 per session, and scholarships are available. For more information about the program or to join a team, contact Karen MacFarquhar at karengotr@aol.com.