By BETHANY WIEGAND
Girls on the Run, an influential program for girls, incorporates self-esteem, teamwork and physical fitness into one program.
Since its local inception in 2000, the program has helped more than 1,700 girls in Lycoming County, according to Michelle McElwee, Girls on the Run of Lycoming County's council director.
The program is recruiting coaches for the spring and summer programs, and is seeking schools, churches or community centers that would want to host the program.
Girls on the Run is primarily funded by the Lycoming County United Way and West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission.
"Without sites to host the programs and coaches, we cannot provide the program. This summer we are planning three half-day, week-long summer camps and we can take up to 30 girls for each program," McElwee said.
Started nationally in 1996 by Molly Barker, the program has two options: Girls on the Run is geared toward girls in grades three to five, and Girls on the Track is for girls in grades six to eight.
Coach Susan Stackhouse became involved with GOTR when she read an article in the Sun-Gazette about the program.
"It really hit a spark with me, and I had two granddaughters the same age," Stackhouse said.
After showing interest in coaching, she went through the required training. In three years, Stackhouse has coached several programs in the area, including ones at Lyter Elementary School, Montoursville, and Rommelt Middle School, South Williamsport. This year, she also is coaching the Girls on the Track program.
During the school year, the programs are 10 weeks long and include 20 lessons. In the summer, there are half-day sessions for one week.
"For each meeting there is a specific lesson plan. We go through helping the girls understand self, strengths and weaknesses, and working with a team. Ultimately, we try to help them develop emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually, and to be a well-balanced, healthy person," Stackhouse said.
Although the program helps the girls train for a 5K, it is not a running program.
"We are encouraging the girls to be physical, but it also helps the girls clear their mind. We create a safe, open environment. They can talk about problems they are having in school, or with a friend. We want them to feel secure," Stackhouse said.
Stackhouse also has reaped the benefits of volunteering.
"It has made me much more aware of the concerns and issues that girls have, maybe with peer pressure or with their school and family life," she said.
Stackhouse says she volunteers about three hours per week with the program during the school year with an extra hour of prep time. The programs also require at least two coaches per group, but some can have as many as four coaches.
"It is very rewarding, both in giving to the girls and what they provide back," she said.
Pat Russell, who has been a volunteer coach in South Williamsport schools for eight years, trained directly with Barker.
"The program was offered through Diakon, and there were a group of people who were from various schools doing it. For us, it was pretty much a staff decision, we knew what it started. It's a great program for building self-esteem and improving choices that girls make," Russell said.
Russell explained that every lesson has a theme.
"The curriculum is in four sections: self-esteem, building healthy habits, running and community service," she said. "Some of the specific things we do with the girls is that we talk about positive self image, identifying with negative things we say about ourselves, actively stop the self-degrading, and we teach how to interact with each other."
Russell also explained that the running part of the program can tie together all the elements of what they are teaching the girls.
"The girls come in not knowing what they can do, and they leave discovering what they can do," she said. "One thing that is moving is during the 10-week program, we do the 5K, but we also complete a community service project ... It builds resilience in the kids, the more we enable them to reach out to other people, the more they feel empowered themselves."
For Sarah Beth MacIntyre, a reading teacher at Central Elementary School, South Williamsport, Girls on the Run allows her to see her students in a different light.
"After school, you learn a lot more about the girls, the things they see, how they feel about themselves. I only see them for 30 minutes during the day. You get that time after school and it completely changes your relationship with them. I feel like I am now a role model for them within the building," MacIntyre said.
She became involved in the program when she volunteered with a summer program last year. MacIntyre used to coach middle and high school track and became interested with Girls on the Run
"I've always been a runner, and have completed 5Ks. When the girls finish the 10-week program, and they do the 5K at the end, they have smiles on their faces ... They are like, 'Oh my gosh, I did it!' " she said.
MacIntyre said she tries to have four coaches for each program.
Russell agreed: "The more adults, the more one-on-one, the better."
During the fall, the programs can have up to 15 girls participating and up to 20 in the summer programs.
"What draws me to this program is the tremendous power it has to help our girls truly feel like they are wonderful people," Russell said. "It has been amazing that the girls who can come in feeling discouraged and even uncertain that they want to be there, have much more possibility in life when they leave."
To become a volunteer for Girls on the Run, contact Michelle McElwee at McElweeM@diakon.org. Volunteers must be 18 years old or older.
For more information, visit www.diakon.org/gotr/.