By way of the national nonprofit Girls on the Run, the local women's shelter is empowering preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running.
To culminate the first successful statewide Girls on the Run season, which began in March, 60 girls from four local elementary schools will participate in a 5k Fun Run on Saturday at Twin Lakes. The public is invited.
"The girls have been preparing for the 5k all season," said Swarupa Toth, the program's specialist and volunteer coordinator with Juneau's Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies (AWARE). "So it's a big, successful moment in their life - a real accomplishment. We want to help make a big deal about it."
Girls on the Run in Southeast Alaska is a 12-week, 24-lesson program for 8- to 12-year-old girls. Toth said the program teaches girls to identify feelings and emotions and to value empathy as well as winning.
"It teaches them to value all body types and all types of people who you don't know as well as your own friends, and many other lessons, while they are stretching, doing little relay races, playing games, giving energy awards and walking," she said. "They learn that a healthy lifestyle is good for you in every way."
As the regional affiliate, AWARE started the program last year with only one school. This season 96 girls and 29 coaches participated from eight schools in Juneau, Haines, Ketchikan and Wrangell.
"So it's catching on fire," Toth said. "The girls love it and so do the coaches. The parents are so supportive too. Watching a dad run with his daughter really sends a terrific message."
Participating elementary schools in Juneau are Harborview, Auke Bay, Gastineau and Mendenhall River, and each school is allowed a maximum of 12 girls.
At each school, the program is lead by two head coaches, who are always female, and two to four assistant coaches, who can be either sex. Currently there are about 13 coaches in Juneau.
In addition to coordinating Saturday's run, Jennifer Watson, a former head coach at Dzantik'i Middle School, is a volunteer substitute coach for the four Juneau schools this year. She believes in the program because it teaches self-esteem and self-respect while fostering a healthy lifestyle of physical activity.
"They're sort of playing along the way and not realizing they're learning, so it's a fun and creative environment," she said. "The really neat thing about the program is not only do the girls learn stuff, the coaches interact and get to learn things about ourselves - just good life lessons for all of us to remember."
Each season, all coaches receive a weekend training course to understand the philosophy and the curriculum of the season. Head coaches generally volunteer about three hours a week, and assistant coaches volunteer about an hour a week.
A busy woman herself, Watson understands time is hard to give, but she also believes such volunteering can benefit the coaches too.
"One of the best things about it is you have a really stressful day in the office and all you think about is work, work, work," she said. "But then you go and hang out with the girls, and they really put it in perspective. They sort of remind you of the really important life lessons out there."
Girls on the Run is structured into three blocks of lessons:
Weeks 1-4: All About Me - girls learn who they are, how they feel about themselves and what they stand for.
Weeks 5-8: Building My Team - girls learn the importance of cooperation and how to "be a positive person to those next to you," Watson said.
Weeks 9-12: Community Begins with Me - girls learn about the community and design their own community project. Example of community projects include making Christmas cards at the Juneau Pioneers' Home or picking up litter.
"They do it all themselves, get to decide and use their cooperative tools to figure out exactly what community project they want to do," Watson explained. "Then they have to come up with all the community resources themselves."
Among Gastineau Elementary School's Girls on the Run members, the consensus was that the program has helped them become healthier, build confidence and make new friends.
Emily Sheakley, 11, chose Girls on the Run because "it's fun and it helps you solve your problems."
"Whenever you're upset, it'll turn your frown upside down," she said. "And every time you come here you'll be happy, and when you go home, you'll still be happy."
In addition to making new friends, Amber Lockhart, 11, joined the club to combat stereotyping.
"I joined because people usually judge people on how they dress or how they're shaped or what they are," she said. "That's not very nice, so I wanted to join Girls on the Run."
Devyn Isaak, 11, said she thought the program sounded fun.
"It's something I can interact with not only my friends, but new people," she said. "I like that not everybody here are my friends and so I make new friends. And it's not boring like just running, but we actually play games and interact with each other."
Sheakley noted that since running with the group, she's noticed a boost in confidence and ability to make new friends.
"Before I hardly had anyone to talk to on the bus," Sheakley said. "But after a couple Girls on the Run, (this person) started talking to me and started becoming my friend, and that felt nice to me."
This season, Girls on the Run was funded through several grants from Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Saucony Run for Good, Douglas-Dorman Foundation, United Way's Community Impact Grant, Juneau Community Foundation's Leghorn Fund and Alaska Community Foundation's Elmer & Ruth Schwantes Fund.
"In order to put this program on, we piecemealed the costs over different grants," Toth said. "It enabled us to send people to trainings with founder Molly Barker, to put on coaches trainings here in Juneau for our four schools and Wrangell, Haines, Sitka and Ketchikan, and to buy running shoes for the girls."
Registration proceeds from Saturday's race will go toward next season. AWARE plans to hold one more season this year, from mid-August to December, and three next year. Since the program started, Girls on the Run has expanded in Southeast and plans are in the works to start programs in Yakutat and Hoonah this fall.
On Saturday, festivities begin at 10 a.m., and the run/walk begins at 11 a.m. Southeast Road Runners will be mapping out the 5k route.
Jeff Brown will make balloon animals, and SAGA and Interact volunteers will help with spraying runners' hair pink, administering temporary tattoos and face painting. Shoefly may also be present to show support.
"Hopefully the parents will make signs to cheer their kids on and we will have a couple of gifts to give away," Toth said.
Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.