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Girls on the Run: Lessons for running the race of life

Posted: July 20, 2013 - 11:01pm

Of all the aspects of Girls on the Run Southeast Alaska — a 12-week, 24-session afterschool program for girls aged 8-14 — most intriguingly, running is only part of it.

“Really, the running is a vehicle,” says Ati Nasiah, Prevention Manager at AWARE and Girls on the Run Southeast Alaska Council Director. “We use it to empower girls to believe in themselves and celebrate their own uniqueness.”

Motivating pre-teen girls to live joyful, confident and healthy lives, Girls on the Run combines training for a 5K “run” with a core curriculum based on healthy decision-making, self-respect and community service.

“We offer girls lessons for running the race of life,” Nasiah says. “What it means to set a goal and achieve it, and also that the ‘impossible’ can be possible.”

Meeting twice a week in teams of 7-20 girls, five coaches per team, GOTR teaches life skills through physical training, education, teamwork and mentoring. In addition to running exercises, each one-and-a-half hour session includes dynamic lessons and discussions on topics like bullying, gossip, peer pressure, body image, eating attitudes and gender stereotypes — what Nasiah terms “breaking out of the girl box.”

“Not only are we helping girls avoid the pitfalls of adolescence; we’re inspiring them to dream big, recognize their inner strength, activate their limitless potential and live in a world where all girls and women are safe and respected,” she says.

In this way, Girls on the Run Southeast Alaska is a thriving example of the United Way’s “Live United” movement, influencing conditions for all by extending a hand to one.

While AWARE runs the program in Juneau, partnerships with WISH in Ketchikan and SAFV in Sitka enable GOTR to reach all towns and villages along the Alaskan Panhandle. The program harnesses the efforts of hundreds of volunteers — each specially trained to deliver GOTR’s curriculum (as well as CPR and basic first-aid) — with programs in Yakutat, Hoonah, Haines, Skagway, Gustavus, Wrangell, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Angoon.

And though every coach receives the same training and curriculum, in each community — and even team-to-team in the same community — Girls on the Run looks and feels different.

“They’re all made up of different women and girls,” Nasiah explains. “Each brings her own particular insight, heart and... let’s call it ‘sparkle.’

Despite its barely five years of existence, GOTR Southeast Alaska has served almost 1000 girls across the region — 284 in the 2011-2012 academic year alone. Because each team completes its own community service project during the season, GOTR is also raising a new generation of young, strong, socially-conscious Southeast Alaskans — female Southeast Alaskans — actively working toward the common good.

While AWARE has aided women in abuse and rape emergencies for decades, until recently the organization concentrated mostly on crisis intervention. Over the last 10 years or so, however, it began looking at domestic violence from a public health angle.

Enter Juneau Violence Prevention Coalition (JVPC), comprised of community members from various organizations, including AWARE, coming together for preventing first-time victimization and perpetration of domestic violence.

“We started talking about promoting youth as agents of change,” says Nasiah, crediting collaboration much in the spirit of “Living United” for GOTR’s birth in 2007. “That’s also the reason for its success: the many agencies, partners and volunteers all teaming up to take on a challenge.”

Through these discussions, the brainstorming group happened upon Girls on the Run International, an umbrella organization founded in 1996 by four-time Ironman tri-athlete Molly Barker.

“We immediately fell in love with the curriculum,” Nasiah says. Particularly attractive: to keep the lessons age-appropriate, Girls on the Run operates two distinct programs, “Girls on the Run,” for third through fifth graders, and “Girls on Track,” directed at sixth through eighth graders.

With several grants and the support of JVCP and AWARE, Girls on the Run Juneau became a local chapter, or “council,” in 2008, piloting the program at one middle school and one elementary school. Within a year, organizations began reaching out to GOTR Juneau wondering if they’d be willing to accept more resources and expand GOTR to all of Southeast Alaska.

Since then, GOTR Southeast Alaska has grown by leaps and bounds. Ultimately, Nasiah would like to see GOTR accept every girl expressing interest. Right now, enrollment occurs on a first-come, first-served basis, and costs $100 per girl, although any family can apply for and receive a scholarship “without question.”

In 2012, these scholarships were partly funded by United Way of Southeast Alaska, through a Community Impact Grant, awarded to ten non-profit organizations across the region.

“The United Way is a huge resource linking us with youth services,” Nasiah says. “It and all its partner agencies may have different missions and tactics, but essentially, we’re all working to build healthy communities.”

The program has also benefited from hiring a full-time staffer, Julie Walker, who assumed the role of GOTR Advocate this past fall.

Walker recruits coaches, students and schools as well as handling coach training and day-to-day support.

“It’s extremely rewarding to be part of something that’s making a difference,” Walker says. “The lessons are geared toward girls, but in the process, as coach, you also learn a lot about being a woman.”

Child or adult, Walker describes an almost universal boost in confidence from finishing the concluding 5K event, regardless of a participant’s speed.

“Hop, skip, walk, run — as long as you keep moving forward.”

“Girls on the Run: Lessons for Running the Race of Life” appears courtesy of United Way of Southeast Alaska as part of a project profiling the achievements of its 2012 Community Impact Grant recipients. To learn more about “living united,” the United Way of Southeast Alaska or any of its 35 partner agencies visit www.unitedwayseak.org. For information about GOTR, including the next coach training on Aug. 24, visit http://www.gotr-sealaska.org.

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