Noticing Neighbors Girls on the Run


In Kansas City, there is a group of girls who come together to show that running and true confidence go hand in hand. Girls on the Run is an organization for 3rd-8th grade girls with an innovative approach to mental wellness, decision making, and compassion through the use of running exercises. With a team of volunteers, trained coaches use physical activity and dynamic discussions to build healthy habits with the girls by guiding their social, emotional, and physical confidence. I sat down with Gina Lichte and Sarah Berger to learn more about the impact of this empowering organization.

Hayley: It is so nice to meet both of you. I have seen some staff posting online about how passionate they are to be working at Girls on the Run, and it just made me look into it. So for those that might not know Girls on the Run, can you explain your mission?



Sarah:

Yeah, definitely. So the mission of Girls on the Run is inspiring girls to be more joyful, healthy and confident using an experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running. We work with girls in 3rd through 8th grade in about 18 counties across Kansas and Missouri each year. We use the Girls on the Run curriculum, which really is life skills development. So girls learn about who they are, how to be a good friend, how to experience emotions, and how to name their emotions. And running is woven into this as a tool to create an appreciation of health and fitness, along with these more emotional mental skills.


Girls on the Run culminates with a 5K that the girls are training for throughout the season. It's really an event for them to put all the new skills that they've learned to use and to try something that they haven't tried before, and then experience the confidence that comes with that.


Hayley:

Wow. I’ve got to think that when you're talking about emotions or confidence, you’re addressing how everyone feels emotions in their body. Do you find that the running is a good release, or how do you work those two things together?


Sarah:

Definitely. That's a great question. It is such a great release—and like you said, emotions live in our bodies. Stress lives in our bodies. Our bodies experience a lot of what our mind is experiencing as well.


One of the ways to really complete that cycle is using physical movement to release it. So many studies show that when your body is active, your mind also benefits from that. So with the running, there's also that mental health piece that comes from being physically active. That's really what we want the girls to get, too.


Gina:

I would say too, it’s not only from the physical activity, it’s also from being in a team setting with other peers who are cheering you on to be your personal best—and having volunteer coaches who are also there cheering you on, making you believe that you could be more than what you think of yourself. Those things, too.

Hayley:

Is there one exercise you could share that shows how to release stressful emotions?


Sarah:

Yeah, definitely. One lesson that I like to point to in the Girls on the Run curriculum is one that, even as an adult, I benefit from. It’s the practice of teaching girls how to set boundaries and how to communicate their feelings. It teaches them the: “I feel ___, when you ___, because ___, instead I would like for you to___” template for them to communicate with their peers, family, or other adults in their life how they're feeling and their boundaries. Then we pair running with that template. That's a very emotionally-based lesson, so the girls will run a lap and then fill out one part of that phrase.

Then by the time they've done all their laps, they have a toolbox full of phrases and different skills that they can really pull from.


Hayley:

That also supports using clear thinking when you say those things.


Sarah:

Yes.


Hayley:

Wow.


Sarah:

How to communicate hard things, and do so in a way that is respectful of the person that you are communicating with.


Hayley:

That's a great point. I'm curious if you bump into this or not, some of those early experiences with running are a low confidence kind of exposure. Do you ever have to overcome a preconceived barrier to running with the girls?


Sarah:

Yeah, definitely. I feel the same way. Growing up, running for me, I hated it. The day that we would run the mile in school was like my least favorite day. I wouldn't want to go—all of that. We do see that with girls, but something that's really great about Girls on the Run is that it's very personal mastery based, so the girls aren't competing with each other.

The way that Girls on the Run teaches running, it's not that you want to be in first place and win. It's more that you want to meet your personal goals. So at each practice, the girls have a sheet they set goals on each time, and that's what they're working towards is their personal goals.


Gina:

I would also add in the dimension of honoring your body—where it's at today, and how it might have looked different than your last practice and your ability to run 13 laps. Today, you might only be at 9 laps. Knowing that what you have available today is enough, and I love the idea of moving away from the “not enoughness” or “I'm not completing everything on my list” and, again, teaching that to young girls now. Then we can continue to build upon that as they get older.

Hayley: Are there any specific stories you remember where you've seen it make a difference?


Sarah:

Our season culminates with that 5K at the end of each eight week season. Throughout sitting at the finish line, we see girls have so many various emotional reactions as they cross the finish line. I’ve heard girls say as they cross it, “I didn't think I could do that, but I just did that.” “I've never run 3 miles before.” “We did it!”

That's one moment that I always point to. That's one that we see all the time.


Gina:

Hayley, I would also add a specific story. One of our board member’s daughters, Shadaya, was a very introverted young woman and had some speech development issues as she was growing up. From her participation in Girls on the Run, learning to find her voice and being rallied around with people who are supporting and wanting her to do great things, she started expressing herself and gaining confidence. Just really growing in that. This was February 2020. We were at our new coach training, and she happened to be there with her mom to volunteer and welcome our new coaches. Then another board member happened to say, “Hey, come up and be part of my welcome speech with me!” So going from a girl who was mute preprogrammed, to finding her voice, to then walking up and speaking in front of an auditorium of 200 people! That to me, is just a beautiful success story and shows how she grew as a young lady. Now she's into dance and really finding her own stage to put herself out on. I just love knowing that she's grown and gained confidence because of her experience.


Hayley:

Oh, my goodness. That's incredible. There's a whole arc to that, and I am sure that took time for her to see those changes happen. I'm wondering, have you had your own arc while working with the program? What have you learned from working with the girls?


Sarah:

Yeah, definitely. You definitely learn just as much by working with the girls and working with this curriculum. It’s what we hear from our volunteers over and over. As a staff, we all really try our best to live out the Girls on the Run mission and values in our own lives, even outside of work. I know when I came to Girls on the Run, I had just graduated college and had no professional work experience other than a few internships. So it's built confidence through gaining professional experience, but it has also given me great physical activity experience, too. Growing up, I was not athletic. I am not especially coordinated, not an athlete. But through Girls on the Run, I've learned the lesson that just moving your body is good. Going on my own fitness journey with group fitness, getting into yoga, and learning the benefits of moving my body through living an active lifestyle is one way I can say Girls on the Run has made an impact on me.

Gina: And potentially pursuing yoga teacher training! Sarah: Yes, hopefully.

Hayley:

What! How cool is that!

Gina:

Also, to brag on Sarah—she had a journey of coming to us straight from college, and now she's also doing freelance work for Girls on the Run International. So not only shaping the voice of Girls on the Run around Kansas City, but also helping to set the tone for our organization nationwide.


Hayley:

Wow. That's incredible. Gina: It is incredible.


Hayley: If someone is reading this and wants get involved, what are the best ways to do that?


Sarah:

The best place to find all of our information is on our website. It's www.gotrkc.org. That has all of our information, all of our volunteer sign ups, 5K registration and girl registration, which opened on February 26th. Also social media is a great way to just get involved. Hear from us, see the girl’s stories, see their quotes, the parent’s quotes, and see what upcoming events that we have going on, too.


Hayley:

Amazing. Gina: Before we finish, I do want to go back. Your question about how has Girls on the Run changed us—I had a meeting with a former intern, and she has a great story. She was living in New York, working on Broadway and also waitressing. Then when covid hit, Broadway closes down, and she tries to manage her work life by then deciding to move back to Kansas City with her family and pursue her Masters. She wanted to come work with us and gain some professional experience during that time by being a coach. Now, she's working with Harmony Project.


Sarah:

Yes.


Gina:

It’s a team helping youth with music education, so it's a beautiful combination of working with children and also using her background in musical theater. She continues to coach for us, and talks about how being a Girls on the Run coach is a part of her identity—how she gets to connect with young women, and the space that she can provide for them to safely explore who they are. I just love how people engage with our program, and from all sides, it changes them for the better.


Keep up with the latest from Girls on the Run through their website, Facebook and Instagram. If you or someone you know is interested in signing up for the next round, the deadline to join is April 1st via the registration page.


All media originally published by Girls on the Run via their online platforms.