Strong, Independent, Diverse

West Godwin Elementary School girls run laps during Girls on the Run

After tying their matching pink and grey running shoes, 26 West Godwin Elementary girls settled on the classroom floor for a pre-run chat during their after-school “Girls on the Run” meeting.

Projected on the Smart Board in front of them were images: a magazine cover with a swimsuit model and teasers for articles like, “170 Ways to Get a Beautiful Beach Body” and “Beyonce’s My Bum Idol.” On another, a woman’s impossibly long and shiny hair was wrapped, braided, around a shampoo bottle with the words, “longer, stronger, better.”

The girls talked about what they saw. “Her hair is super long. I don’t believe it’s that long,” one girl said.

“It says something mean up there,” said another girl referring to a magazine headline about body weight.

“We don’t all have to be the same size,” said another girl.

Diamond, a fourth-grader, said she didn’t like what she was seeing. “They’re trying to give us a bad image of ourselves. That’s not how a girl wants to feel.”

Connecting the images to what they’ve learned in school, third- and fourth-graders noticed claims presented as fact in the shampoo ad weren’t backed with evidence. “They are leaving out that it is just shampoo,” said one girl.

It was the kind of insight coach and teacher Jessica Surdam wanted them to gain from the activity. “Are any messages on here healthy for girls?” she asked, to which came a chorus of nos. “They are not healthy because we don’t have to fit in a little box. We are all unique.”

Teacher and coach Diane VanderMeulen told the girls their responses were impressive. “You guys are going to change the world,” she said. “The whole message of Girls on the Run is being strong and being independent, and that diversity is great. Strong, confident girls. I love it.”

Girls collected puzzle pieces for each lap to put together at the end
Girls collected puzzle pieces for each lap to put together at the end

Laps and Lessons

Gearing up for a 5K race to culminate 10 weeks of sessions has been about more than running for Godwin Heights girls involved in the program. Before hitting their strides outside, they talk about issues that affect girls. They bond and learn about being confident and healthy, their coaches say.

Girls on the Run International was founded in 2000 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has grown from one school to 225 councils in 49 states and Washington D.C.

“It really focuses on increasing the girls’ self-esteem, getting them to work together and develop relationship and coping skills,” said West Godwin social worker Kate Strock. “Third and fourth grade is the age when they really start to have some ‘girl issues,’ and the program does a really good job addressing those things and making them feel empowered and good about themselves.”

In 2015, 98,000 volunteers served 179,000 girls and hosted more than 350 end-of-season 5K events across the U.S. Girls on the Run also launched a new middle school program called Heart & Sole, which is dedicated to the unique needs of adolescent girls. In Kent County, more than 100 schools have programs and more than 2,000 girls recently participated in the 2016 Celebration 5K beginning at Calder Plaza, according to the Girls on the Run Kent County website. A perk: the program provides shoes for girls who participate.

Seven volunteers — all staff members — and about 25 girls are involved with West Godwin’s two teams. North Godwin Elementary and Godwin Heights Middle School also have one team each.

“I learned to just be yourself,” said a fourth-grader named Kierra. “You don’t need to impress people. Be yourself. Be nice and have a good time.”

A game that involved tagging girls to freeze them and free them preceded the run
A game that involved tagging girls to freeze them and free them preceded the run

Once outside, girls ran laps in teams of three, collecting puzzle pieces that in the end would create one big puzzle.

Fourth-grader Ashley said she’s found that girls relate to each other while working hard to run farther, and by talking. “I like how people understand my feelings, and when they understand they can come to me.

“Even if I’m walking, the girls help me try to run,” Ashley said. “I learned you can be anybody you want to be. Nobody is the same person.”

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Girls on the Run

Kent County Girls on the Run

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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