Girls on the Run Empowering a New Generation
March 17, 2016 | Focus on Women
As a young girl, Molly Barker felt pressure to be what other people expected her to be, to look a certain way, dress a certain way and to care about certain things. “I call it the ‘girl box,’” Barker says. For years, Molly fought with her own demons on whom she thought society wanted her to be. “I struggled with that pressure my whole life, and I used alcohol to cope.” In 1993 at the age of 32, she says, she hit bottom—and she says it was during a run that she had an epiphany. “What helped me climb out of that box was running and realizing I needed to define myself on my own terms.”
In 1996, three years after she achieved sobriety, Barker founded the non-profit organization Girls on the Run. As a teacher, social worker and triathlete, she says, she created the program because she could directly relate to the identity struggle so many girls and women have. “The idea was to create a place where girls feel safe to be themselves and to explore their own ideas and appreciate others.”
The program lasts 10 weeks and explores issues around peer pressure, bullying, friendship and building community; and it seeks to help girls build specific life skills that might serve them as they grow older. It culminates with a 5k run, which is framed not as a competition but as a celebration for self-defined goals and for the group as a whole.
Girls on the Run started with an idea to help young girls find ways to feel empowered. As an educator, Barker says, she “knew that it is in middle school when girls begin to feel that pressure. So I started there,” she recalls.
Barker started with an extracurricular running program and added in lessons to build self-awareness and confidence in girls. She drew on her teaching experience and her work in substance abuse prevention to develop the curriculum.
The first after-school program served 13 girls, and Barker admits it was a process in the making. “The first group helped me work out the program details. I had an overall concept and a first lesson planned. At the end of each class I’d write the next class plan based on how things went with the girls.”
Building the organization from a single after-school program to a nationwide effort took help, says Barker. “My strength is in creative ideas and figuring out how to create a spark that motivates someone,” she says. She credits her partner, Dori Luke, with building a structure to expand the program; and current CEO, Elizabeth Kunz, with shepherding the organization forward to reaching a new generation of girls since her retirement from the organization in 2013.
Girls on the Run now has programs in 256 locations around the U.S., and it recently celebrated serving its one millionth girl. The program focuses on girls from the third to eighth grades, and it includes a high school program in which older graduates work as junior instructors and mentors to younger girls. The organization relies mostly on volunteers. It organizes fundraising runs around the country, and it supports underprivileged participants with funds from contributors and sponsors.
“It changed how I see myself. And it completely changed how I see others and the world,” explains Shanae Heath, a one-time participant in Girls on the Run, who is now an intern at the organization’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I thought it was going to be like any other athletic extracurricular program, but it was deeper than that. We did run, but it wasn’t about beating someone else.” Heath says her mother signed her up for the program when she was eight years old, and it has had a lasting effect on her life. “‘Girls’ helped me gain confidence in myself and my ideas. It also taught me how to listen to people from different backgrounds, and it helped me feel like I could make a difference.”
Shanae Heath says she has plans to use what Girls on the Run taught her about herself to be a change maker in her own right. She is on track to graduate from college in a year with a degree in fitness science, and she plans go on to graduate school for youth development. “I see the potential in helping other young people,” she says. “I have my own ideas about curriculum and how I can help others with a deeper focus on fitness science. For me Girls on the Run has been an inspiration, and I’m hoping to build on that in my way.”
This year Girls on the Run will celebrate its 20th anniversary of helping young girls build self-confidence. “Running is at the core, but it’s much deeper than that,” explains Barker. “Young girls can get lost in the messages the world sends to them about who they should be and how they should act. It can be incredibly stifling. We are trying to help girls find their brilliance.”
Photo: Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run.