Titles can be deceiving. For starters, Girls on the Run is not an organization of pint-sized fugitives. The group's mission statement makes no mention of speed, agility or racing.
"You donít have to be a runner," said Victoria Wieben, a mother from Marion and a member of Girls On the Run of Eastern Iowa's Board of Directors. "I think thatís difficult; you get a lot of people who say, 'Oh, I donít runÖ ' Itís really not about the running. We donít expect people to run. We have coaches who donít run."
Girls On the Run is a national organization that began in 1996 before making its way to Eastern Iowa in 2007. The program targets girls in grades three through six, ranging from ages 8 to 12. Molly Barker, a former triathlete with a master's of social work, founded the group to help young women navigate adolescence by building the confidence to resist society's often negative images about females.
"Itís a curriculum that instills self-confidence," said Julie Spore of Hiawatha, a mother whose 10 year old daughter Abby is on the Hiawatha Elementary School team. "Itís healthy and promoting setting goals and reaching them.Ē
Much like any other sport, Girls on the Run measures time not by years but instead by seasons. The fall 2012 season is currently under way -- there's a spring session as well -- and it's the first where girls in Linn County can lace up and join in. The enrollment fee is $150 per season, but financial aid is available.
Over the course of approximately two months, the girls meet twice a week to learn, talk and train under a coach's direction.† Each session, usually held at a local school where most of the runners attend, lasts a little over an hour and uses physical activity to teach a mental lesson.
"I fell in love with this program from the first day that I saw it on the website," Wieben said. "I really feel like this is an important age group and an influential age group ... I think itís a great opportunity for girls to learn about the important things such as being positive about their body image, being a leader, setting goals and meeting them.Ē
Wieben and Julie Bradley, a teacher at Hiawatha Elementary School and mother of a Girls on the Run alumna, both worked to broaden the then-Johnson County chapter's reach. Bradley, who coaches the Hiawatha Elementary School team, said that administrative costs initially made starting a separate Linn County group a real challenge.† The women instead opted to do some teamwork and join with the Johnson County, being able to benefit from that group's experience.
"Vicky kept pushing and pushing until it happened," Bradley said. "We're very grateful for her stamina."
Wieben's initial goal was to have four new teams in Linn County. This season will be the first for five local sites: Center Point-Urbana Intermediate Elementary School, Frances Marion Intermediate School, Hiawatha Elementary School, Johnson Elementary School and the Rockwell Collins Recreational Center, with a total of more than 50 girls.
"The response was just awesome in this area," Wieben said. "I think parents also realize what an important aspect it is to talk to girls about healthy living, healthy lifestyle, healthy self confidence Ö They just kind of flock to it.Ē
Strides in Tandem
Running is so often an individual sport and adolescence can be such an isolating time but Girls on the Run aims to instill self-esteem in a collaborative setting. The girls do group activities during practices and each runner designates a Running Buddy to participate alongside for the practice and final 5 kilometer races. Audrey Leno, 8, of Hiawatha, selected her mother Anna to be her running buddy.
Audrey was a runner before she joined Girls on the Run and enjoys tackling long distances. She likes the freedom of the program -- how she gets to twirl while she runs and no one tells her not to -- and has already learned about behavior and self-esteem.
"No one can tell you what to do," Audrey said, reflecting on a recent lesson from practice. "I think we should get to choose ourselves."
Her mother, who volunteers with the Hiawatha Elementary team, likes how the program focuses on elementary students.
"I think this is a good age to start it before they start having some of the pressures," she said. "If you have the knowledge on how to do that and the strength to be who you are, you're better off."
The girls will close out their season with the Girls on the Run 5K on Saturday, Nov. 17 at the University of Iowa's Ashton Cross Country Course in Iowa City.
ďWe just want you to cross the finish line," Wieben said. "If you want to skip the whole way, skip the whole way. If you want to walk, thatís fine. If you want to run, thatís great.Ē