by Mariah Hicks

“Our main idea today is to take care of ourselves,” says one of the women standing at the front of the classroom, “because sometimes, we forget.”

Fourteen middle school girls enthusiastically fidget in their seats as the woman goes on to explain the day’s activity. The girls will be running five laps outside. At the beginning of each lap, they will choose a card from one of the five brown paper bags labeled: spirit, brain, heart, social and body. During their lap, they will reflect on the questions on the cards, either individually or with a partner.

We gather our water bottles and most of the girls rush past me, racing out the classroom door and down the stairs into the April breeze. Outside, the girls form a circle to begin their warm-ups under the afternoon sky. They energetically bounce on their tiptoes as they do jumping jacks, butt kicks and cherry pickers.

After the group exercise, each girl grabs a piece of paper from one of the paper bags and begins their laps around Stanton Middle School in Kent.

I run to catch up with a couple of girls, two seventh graders who have chosen a card from the paper bag labeled body. “I know that everyone’s body is different than mine, so I try not to compare myself to others,” it reads. One girl answers true, the other false. The coach, one of the school counselors who is walking with them, encourages the girls to think about how they’re completely different from everybody else. We continue walking as they reflect with each other on how they can appreciate their bodies without comparing themselves to others.

During the last lap, I catch up with twin sisters from China who have been in the U.S. for a little under a year. The sisters just recently joined the organization and tell me about how they enjoy it because it helps them make friends and allows them to exercise.

After walking and talking with a few girls, I realize Girls on the Run is a safe space for these girls to be themselves. I realize that it’s a way for them to exist loudly and without regret. I realize that it is all these things and so much more.

Girls on the Run provides space for young girls throughout Northeast Ohio to get physically, mentally and emotionally fit. The international organization was founded in 1966 in Charlotte, N.C. by Molly Baker. Baker saw a need to provide young girls with tools to help them lead a better life.

The Northeast Ohio chapter covers Summit, Cuyahoga, Medina, Lorain, Lake and Portage counties. It encourages the participation of girls ages 8-15 at multiple locations throughout these counties.

Girls on the Run caters to grades 3-5, encouraging their connections with others and with themselves. Its expansion, Heart & Sole, branches out to grades 6-8, focusing more on the body, spirit, brain, heart and social connections that each girl has in life.

“It’s not a running program, it’s a self-esteem character building program,” says Executive Director Robyn Cutler. “They’re talking about a different topic and doing some kind of fitness that helps build their endurance, so at the end of the 10 weeks, all the girls from our sites can participate in a non-competitive 5K running event.”

The organization’s fitness components prepare the girls for the 5K.

“They can run, walk, skip or jump to the finish line, we don’t care how they get there,” Robyn says. “The basic philosophy is, they’ve taken these lessons and have developed character within that, and they’ve set a goal, and at the end of the season they achieve it.”

At the end of each day’s lesson, the girls and coaches gather in the front of the room for “energy awards,” which give the girls a chance to nominate someone and celebrate their achievements for that day. Today, one girl is nominated for her willingness to walk with another girl and for her kindness. While she stands in the middle of the circle, the other girls put their hands in towards the middle and begin chanting: “1, 2, 3, Girls on the Run are so much fun!”

Each hand rises into the air and the girls bounce around on their tiptoes. They gather their belongings and once again, rush into the April breeze unapologetically claiming the entirety of their beings and loudly existing as their true selves.

Girls on the Run is still in need of volunteers for the 5K. The run will take place May 18, 2019. If you or anyone you know are interested, please contact robyn.cutler@girlsontherun.org

Mariah Hicks is soon to graduate from Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing.

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