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Sandy Journal

Girls on the Run offers winning combination of fitness, making healthy decisions

May 30, 2022 05:07PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Last year, Albion Middle School’s Girls on the Run program celebrated the conclusion of its spring season by running a 5K around the school campus, with teachers and families cheering them on. The year before, the program was essentially a few lessons virtually, but without a memorable closing run.

This year marks the return of the 5K run at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City, which is considered by many to be a highlight of the program.

It’s one that seventh-grader Brooklyn Van Sweden doesn’t want to miss.

“Last year was really fun and it was great we had so many teachers here to encourage and celebrate it with us, but I’m looking forward to running it at Sugar House and to be there to celebrate with all the friends I’ve made,” she said, adding that her dad will join her in the June 4 run that will bring Girls on the Run participants, including at Canyon View Elementary, from all over Utah to celebrate.

Girls on the Run is a nonprofit program that has involved more than one million girls across the United States and Canada to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem-solving skills and make healthy decisions while training for a 5K race. Teams, coordinated by volunteers at schools, usually meet after school for a couple hours each week.

The program started in 1996 in North Carolina with 13 girls at one school and now reaches girls in all 50 states. Utah jumped on board in 2007 with 30 girls at two schools. Now in its 15th year in Utah, Girls on the Run helps girls in 10 counties build confidence and make intentional decisions while fostering care and compassion for themselves and others.

The middle school program, Heart & Sole, helps girls discover confidence and understand the importance of physical and emotional health in a team setting. Albion has three trained volunteer coaches lead the girls through interactive lessons and running activities.

Brooklyn said that as a new student last year, it gave her an avenue to make new friends. 

“We talked about being kind to people at school and to include the new kid and I was that new kid,” she said. “Through Girls on the Run, I was able to make some really good friends and have some trusted adults in my life.”

This year, she set her goal to become more active. She runs with her Girls on the Run teammates twice each week for eight weeks this spring.

Her teammate Bri Bernal is the only eighth grader on Albion’s squad. 

“I really don’t like running, but I chose to do it and hang with my friends,” she said. “I’ve learned that the activities help me check in with my feelings.”

She also said the lessons she has learned is preparing her for high school next year.

“I know to ask for help, to get advice, or use what I’ve learned in different situations,” she said.

Seventh-grader Abby Mettler said the emotional health issue lessons has been beneficial.

“I’ve gone through some rough patches, and I’ve learned that I’m not alone with my problems and that they aren’t silly,” she said. “There has been a lot going on and I’m not the only one struggling. This has really helped; I’ve made some really good friends and the adults really care. It has given me someone else I know I can reach out to as well as my family.”

Abby, who said that running as well as the support and understanding of her team were the best parts of Girl on the Run, was looking forward to the 5K. Unfortunately, the same day as the interview, she crashed her bike and has ended up on crutches, likely ending her opportunity to run at Sugar House Park this year.

Albion coach Lauren Nielsen plans to run the 5K with the other 14 girls and their running buddies as well as co-coaches Kristin Swain and Calliandra Hopkins.

“For some of our girls, this is a real celebration where they have taken huge strides to be able to run, build up their strength and conditioning and push themselves,” she said. “They can run, jog, walk, skip and just celebrate finishing. These girls are having fun together, just spending time with each other. They always have a laugh, a smile and love being silly.”

      Equally, she said, they have a serious side when they focus on lessons that emphasis the whole girl, their identity tied to their body, brain, spirit, heart and soul.

“They’re finding their inner strengths of who they are and are making those connections,” Nielsen said. “This is a place where girls belong and while it may not look like a sports team, it’s a team where they can let loose and be there; there are no judgments, but rather support and friendship. As a coach, it’s rewarding to see the girls find joy. The past few years have been hard on them, so as they learn about themselves and make friends, it’s gratifying to see them become a team and take pride in that.”

At Canyon View, 35 third- through fifth-grade girls are planning to run the 5K.

“I normally cap our program at 22, but I didn’t want to say no after not having a full season in 2020 and not having it at all last year,” said Canyon View coach Karla Antivilo, who coaches the team along with two parents. “It’s a great program that teaches girls some positivity, how to develop some leadership skills, how to work with others, how to cheer each other on.”

At the beginning of their program, Canyon View girls discussed “connection” and identified everything around that word. Since then, they’ve talked about empathy, positive self-talk, choosing friends, exploring emotions, inner strength and communication.

Some of the lessons are even incorporated into their workouts.

“On Wednesday, we talked about encouragement and then each girl got a little paper that had a word of encouragement. The goal was every time they would pass somebody running, they would pass it on to encourage on one another. It reinforced our connection as a team,” she said.

Shortly before the 5K, the team planned to perform a service project. In years past, they held a drive for a women’s shelter.

“We let the girls brainstorm some ideas about ways they can serve our community; it teaches them a lot and puts a lot of our lessons into play,” Antivilo said. “The girls are starting at this young age to feel their value in society. The program also allows me as a teacher to see some of these girls outside my class with other girls. They may be quiet or shy in class, but when they’re around a group of girls who are cheering for them, they become more outgoing, and their personalities shine through. It allows them to see some of their strengths that maybe they weren’t able to see in other situations.”

Canyon View also traditionally holds a special team celebration before the 5K where they may have girls walk a red carpet and be given a card or a fun, special award for each of the girls from the coaches.

While running drew Antivilo into coaching the program, it’s the lessons that has kept her involved.

“I like seeing the girls in a positive and fun atmosphere. I wish there was a program like this when I was younger,” she said. “Most girls end up loving this program and they can’t wait to sign up for the next year.”