Girls on the Run moves through the pandemic

Girls on the Run is a nonprofit organization that inspires girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum that integrates running. 

The program, a long-time City Connects community partner, encourages girls of all abilities to recognize their individual strengths while building a sense of connection in a team setting. 

At the end of the season, the team completes a 5K together, which provides a tangible sense of accomplishment and sets a confident mindset into motion.

Volunteer coaches, often drawn from school staff, facilitate lessons that blend physical activity with life skill development to enable girls to adapt to whatever comes their way. 

Among the ranks of volunteers is Keisha Anderson, the City Connects Coordinator at Belle Haven Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, who has served as a coach. She helps Girls on the Run connect to students who want to participate.

It was straightforward work. Then the pandemic hit. 

Girls on the Run adapted by making key changes. Team sizes were reduced. Activities that the girls had done in-person as a group were collected into a Girl Journal. Schools running the program had three options. They could be 100 percent in person, 100 percent hybrid, or a mix of the two.

Kayleigh Clark, the executive director of Girls on the Run Dayton explains, “Traditionally our girls run or walk laps, so long as they’re moving forward. But we can’t really run laps in front of a screen, so we have different exercises everyone can do in front of their screens and still have that social interaction with their teammates and with their coaches.

“We have also trained our coaches for this. We hosted our traditional coach training virtually, and we added these fluid program protocols along with health and safety protocols so that everyone could participate.”

Fortunately, all the teams from all the schools were able to meet in person, with the option of going online. Girls on the Run also kept its community impact project going, so girls could engage in projects like writing notes to patients at Dayton Children’s Hospital, collecting food for food pantries, and picking up trash in local parks.

At Belle Haven, Keisha Anderson knew that the pandemic would create a need for coaches.

“I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to tell any kid, no,” Anderson says. “If they were looking for a positive way to connect, I wanted to make sure I did my best to be able to provide that.” 

She found five coaches among Belle Haven staff – enough so that third through fifth graders could participate in Girls on the Run, and Belle Haven’s sixth graders could participate in Heart and Soul, Girls on the Run’s program for older students. The girls practiced after school twice a week.

Earlier this month, girls from Belle Haven and other schools all ran in a Girls on the Run 5K race that was held at Wright State University.

Now, Girls on the Run Dayton is rebuilding, hoping to grow from the 350 girls in the program toward the 1,500 who participated annually before COVID. It’s an aspiration that illustrates a key lesson we’ve also learned at City Connects: Keep moving forward. 

Even in the face of a natural disaster, it’s vital to keep students connected to positive activities and to keep schools connected to positive practices like City Connects’ system of assessing students’ needs and strengths and providing support and enrichment.

As Girls on the Run says, it’s vital to be “fueled by connection” and “sparked by confidence.”

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