Monday, March 24, 2003

'Everybody's a winner' in Girls on the Run

Preteens learn fitness, self-esteem and nutrition

By Llee Sivitz
Enquirer contributor

Remember the awkwardness and self-consciousness of the preteen years?

Girls on the Run of Ohio Inc. offers Tristate preteens something better to remember.

Its goal is to "educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living" by teaching them about nutrition, self-esteem and each other - while training them for a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race.

Cost: $150 per child. When possible, no girl is turned away due to inability to pay. Girls on the Run of Ohio is supported partly by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
• Ohio program: Co-director Tracey DuEst, 731-0089. Camps will be June 9-13 and July 21-25. Women coaches and volunteers always are needed.
National Web site:
Cincinnati boasts the largest, most diverse participation in the nationwide after-school program, says co-director Jody Maxey. At last count, 32 schools and 720 girls, ages 8 to 12, are involved.

Maxey, who coaches Girls on the Run at several schools, including Dater Montessori in Westwood, believes a major benefit of the program is its non-competitiveness.

"My main goal for the girls is to make them feel good about themselves, no matter how big or small they are," Maxey says. "Everybody's a winner, whether they come in first or last" in a race.

"When you run, people might say you run too slow or too fast. If you are surrounded by a lot of girls that probably think that they run slow, too, they feel the same way you feel," says Kelly Huff, a Dater fifth-grader who joined to make new friends.

The girls meet for an hour twice a week during the program's 10-week session. A healthy lifestyle "lesson" is presented each time, as well as an opportunity to prepare for the end-of-session race.

As Maxey explains, "Throughout the lesson you will see some running, walking, jogging or skipping - whatever they want to do to prepare themselves."

One of the few rules of the program is that you must participate. You can walk in the training, Maxey says , but you have to keep moving. Those who finish first cheer on the others.

Parents and coaches of children in the program call the self-confidence that Girls on the Run promotes more important than the ability to run.

In the first lesson, for example, each girl says "what's cool about me." The coaches say something first, such as "It's cool that I have a dog" or "It's cool that I have blue eyes," and then each girl takes a turn.

"The purpose of the first lesson is for them to speak their names and hear their own voices," Maxey says. "Once they speak, they start to get more comfortable with every lesson."

Laureen Mains of Cheviot has a fifth-grader, Emily, in the program.

"Every day my daughter comes home motivated," she says.

A major draw for Girls on the Run is the fun factor. Movement is slowly and cleverly introduced into each lesson, so the girls hardly realize they are getting exercise.

Lesson Three, for example, has the girls doing a relay to "shop" for healthful food for their girl "families." They hurry to and from the "store" several yards away, each girl making several trips.

"I tell my coaches you have to be geeky, cut loose and be a kid," Maxey says. "The girls have been in school all day and don't want somebody saying `You need to do this, this, and this.' When you're teaching them, why not have a good time?"

Girls on the Run also hosts summer camps, and a sixth-through-eighth-grade program - Girls On Track - will start in the fall.

Girls on the Run of Ohio started with 17 participants in 1999. To date, 2,600 girls from public and private schools have completed the program.

"There's the girl who you think, `How is she ever going to finish?' Then you see her cross the finish line and it makes your whole day," Maxey says.

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