The air was crisp, still March, when the 15 young women who make up Girls on the Run of Southeastern Connecticut first convened.
This was the second session of what would extend to 24 meetings in the coming weeks. The girls, in grades 3-5, stretched, then headed outside to the playground at the North Stonington Elementary School, where they were about to be given the task of running 12 laps around the blacktop.
First, they formed a circle, where each girl was asked to jump in the middle and display a “positive” pose. There were peace signs, smiles, raised arms and plenty of shy giggling. One participant, a bit apprehensive, asked if she could think about it for a few minutes and take her turn later.
Then, the running. For each lap, the girls received a short ribbon of yarn, which they would later braid together in one long chain, seeing how far the yarn would stretch along the back of the school, learning what they could accomplish in tandem. The girls were also given a sheet of stickers. For each lap, they peeled off a sticker and pasted it to a coach until the leaders were covered, back and front.
The girls talked amongst themselves as they ran. Some walked, some skipped, one ran backwards, one took the time to hopscotch across a pattern painted on the playground. Their finishes were staggered, some still running while others sat down to knot their segments of yarn together.
As the time for the session wound down, there was still one runner with two laps remaining. At first, she was joined by one friend, running alongside to help count down the remaining steps. Then the entire group, unprompted, rose to its feet and ran next to the remaining team member, cheering, supporting until they all finished together.
This is Girls on the Run.
Girls on the Run began in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996 with 13 girls. The curriculum, which is centered around teaching pre-adolescent girls to embrace their strengths, thus forming a positive self-image and empowering them to address life’s challenges, closes with the young women running a 5-kilometer road race (approximately 3.1 miles).
There are now more than 130,000 girls participating in the program in 200 cities across North America, complete with corporate sponsors and media coverage from People magazine and Runner’s World. In 2012, the organization reported 253 end-of-the-season 5K events.
It was an organization with principles which called to Sarah Lafayette of North Stonington, mother of three.
“Abby, my daughter, is a kind person who is friends with everybody and doesn’t understand how people can be unkind to each other,” said Lafayette, now the executive director of Girls on the Run of Southeastern Connecticut. “There were certain situations that affected how she felt about herself.”
It was Lafayette’s dad, Harold, who lives in Bellows Falls, Vt., who brought Girls on the Run to his daughter’s attention. A runner who said she knows the self-confidence the sport gives to her, Lafayette attended training in Charlotte, N.C., in order to become a council director. She researched. She applied for grants. She contacted the North Stonington schools to make sure they approved the project.
For Lafayette, who describes herself as a “stay-at-home mom looking to do something important (outside the home),” she’s been more than impressed with the results.
Perhaps it started the day the girls leapt up to run the final laps around the playground with their teammate who was trailing behind.
“It’s amazing,” Lafayette said recently. “It’s great to see the girls smiling, talking with each other, talking about some
pretty intense stuff they don’t necessarily talk about to their parents or their friends, but they’re starting to share now.
“I just see a lot of the lessons talk about being positive, turning negative situations into something positive. As an adult, that’s something that even we struggle with. And you see these girls switch it around. They’re on the edge of where they’re still impressionable, but kind of entering that stage where they’re more ‘I’m listening to my peers.’ We captured them before they enter that real peer pressure where things come down on them.”
As their grand finale, the girls were scheduled to run the North Stonington Education Foundation’s Runners and Walkers in Support of Education 5K on Saturday, May 24, starting and finishing at the North Stonington Grange Fairgrounds.
A few weeks before, they ran a practice 5K on Tuesday and on a rainy Thursday that week they were back at the elementary school for another Girls on the Run lesson. This one centered around magazine advertisements. The group was broken in half and each team given an ad to dissect. Did they think it was a positive message for girls? In between answers, they ran short sprints down the hallway.
The girls were exceedingly thoughtful and confident in their answers, comfortable sharing their opinions, the shyness which once hung in the air long gone.
One ad was for singer Katy Perry’s Killer Queen perfume. A positive image for girls? A resounding no.
Some of the comments:
“They want to make you think if you get this perfume, you’ll be just like her.”
“It makes girls feel really bad about themselves, even though everything in that advertisement would be altered by a computer.”
“Her hair looks really, really fake (accented by approximately 10 more ‘reallys.’)”
The second ad was by Nike Plus, a current campaign dubbed as “The Men vs. Women Challenge.” First, an ad which reads, “Ladies First, Men Second.” Then another, the men’s version, which trumpets, “One More Thing for Men to Rule.” Comments?
“(The two are) advertising the same thing, which makes no sense.”
“There’s a kid in my class that thinks gymnastics is disgusting (alluding to men’s vs. women’s sports.)”
The girls’ final conclusion: If they didn’t like an advertisement, they could always write a letter and tell the company to cease running it or stop buying the products altogether since “this is a country of freedom.”
Afterward, they ran more laps around the playground, most of them wearing matching sneakers donated to the group from Brooks Running, a company based in Seattle.
“I’m really happy. I enjoy it a lot,” said Jillian, a fourth-grader at North Stonington Elementary School and a member of the group (Girls on the Run prohibits the use of the girls’ last names for privacy reasons). “I’m happy I can say what I think now and not get embarrassed. It does help me. I’ve learned to keep my calm, stop and think about what I say. If I’m upset about a day, it helps me calm down and get it all out. I’m very happy. I feel very positive.”
“It’s pretty much just everything. It’s pretty special,” said Abby, a fifth-grader at the same school.
Lafayette, as head of the Southeastern Connecticut council — encompassing New London, Windham and Middlesex counties — is looking to add three additional Girls on the Run sites for the fall. Teams consist of 8-15 girls and Lafayette would be charged with interviewing coaches and volunteers.
She believes the group has the ability to alter the way girls feel about themselves and has seen several instances where participants come back and tell her they’ve used their reasoning skills and newfound self-confidence to get through everyday situations.
She’s been touched by the experience.
“They share with each other, things they feel, and they feel comfortable doing it,” Lafayette said. “They’re always supportive. If you can change the way one girl feels about herself, it’s worth it. They are the change-makers. They have the ability to create change. Their positive attitude can rub off on somebody else.
“It’s been a part of my life for over two years now. It’s been a long haul (getting it started), but it’s really worth it. It’s changed my life.”