As soon as their coach said “go,” the girls took off running down the hallway at Maxfield Elementary School, panting and shrieking as they dodged the hands of those who were “it.”
The last-minute game of freeze tag broke out at the St. Paul school after a May Day snow shower forced the runners inside.
A standoff began at the end of one of the hallways when some girls took cover behind a table.
“Out from behind the table,” Amy Robinson shouted. “Remember, this is a moving game. There’s no hiding.”
Robinson, a guidance counselor at Maxfield, is one of three volunteer coaches for the school’s Girls on the Run club.
There are 110 similar clubs at school sites across the metro area. All are operated by Girls on the Run Twin Cities, a local nonprofit working to empower girls in grades 3 through 8 to be healthy and confident, according to Mary Uran, one of the organization’s two founders.
It started five years ago with 24 girls and two sites. This year, more than 2,100 girls are members.
The program is affiliated with the international Girls on the Run organization, which started 21 years ago, but it has its own board of directors and operational structure, Uran said.
Girls meet weekly for 90-minute practices during the club’s fall and spring seasons to run together and learn about what it means to be healthy, skillful and confident members of the community.
To do that, lessons are interwoven into each practice, such as learning about positive self-talk, what it means to be emotionally competent, how to set boundaries and build empathy. The girls set weekly running goals that help them work toward participation in a 5K at the end of each season.
BODY AND MIND
“One of the themes we hear so often is about girls who maybe feel like they don’t fit in at school, or they’re not involved in any sports or other after-school activities … and they maybe come to Girls on the Run a little hesitant,” Uran said. “But as the weeks progress, those girls are drawn out, and soon they’re creating friendships and it’s safe and it’s supportive and by the end they are the leaders of the group.”
“Seeing them cross the finish line (at the end of the season) is one of the best days of the year,” Uran added. “You get to watch them unleash this confidence they’ve built.”
At the start of the recent practice at Maxfield Elementary, Robinson asked the girls what it meant to cooperate.
Hands shot up.
“Being kind,” one girl said.
“Communicate,” said another.
After a little more conversation on the topic, Robinson asked them to transition and brainstorm on how they wanted to get exercise that day since it was too rainy and cold to be outdoors.
Though they didn’t know it, the group was learning how to work together as they spit-balled suggestions and listened to ideas before taking a vote on the day’s activity.
All of the girls in the Maxfield club get financial aid to participate. That meant they received a pair of tennis shoes, running clothes and had the $150 participation fee waived.
Accessibility is a big part of the organization’s mission, Uran said, and the program has worked hard to reach into communities with high financial need. More than 50 percent of girls in the program received financial aid this spring.
A BOOST IN CONFIDENCE
Girls on the Run is the first organized activity for Janyia Villa, a fifth-grader at Maxfield. She says it’s helped her solve problems and avoid fights.
“Like now I know how to ignore bad comments instead of hearing them and letting them make you go crazy,” she said.
It’s also boosted her confidence and given her a career goal: to earn “lots of medals” as a professional athlete, Villa said.
She scored a victory the other week when a fourth-grade boy called her slow and she challenged him to a race.
“I told him, ‘I’m a professional athlete. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?’ ” she said.
Her sister, Jayla, is also in the club. The third-grader wants to be a police officer and describes herself as “nice, kind of bossy, kind, and smart.”
They talk about what it means to be strong in the club, she said. She sees her mom and aunts as examples.
“They help me with a lot of stuff and they encourage me to keep going and keep going and never give up. My mom calls that determination,” she said.
A LIFE LESSON
Jayla channeled some of that as she raced another girl down the Maxfield hallway during a relay race. During another sprint, she started to slow down, and Robinson reminded her fellow club members of the Girls on the Runway.
“Where’s my Girls on the Run encouraging?” Robinson asked them.
The girls started cheering.
“Let’s go Jayla,” they yelled, until the third-grader dropped to the ground and started goofing around, rolling her way down the hall instead of sprinting as instructed.
“Seriously Jayla, seriously,” they chanted.
After the practice was over, Robinson rounded the girls back up to offer some observations and a life lesson.
“Sometimes when you are running and it gets hard, you gotta push through the hard,” she told them. “I like the girls that stuck with it and encouraged the others.”
Link to original article here, Pioneer Press.