Girls on the Run helps local girls find their 'Star Power'

Girls on the Run Central Florida is celebrating 10 years of building healthy, confident girls in local schools across Southwest Orange.

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  • | 2:30 p.m. October 4, 2018
The girls of the Windermere Elementary chapter of Girls on the Run love the twice-weekly practices.
The girls of the Windermere Elementary chapter of Girls on the Run love the twice-weekly practices.
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Elizabeth Hey, 10, loves talking about Girls on the Run.

The fifth-grader at Windermere Elementary has been in the program for the last two years. She especially likes talking about her “Star Power.”

“I learned (from Girls on the Run) that you should always be kind to one another and let your Star Power shine,” Elizabeth said after finishing an after-school workout last week.

What is Star Power, exactly?

“It’s when you are energetic,” Elizabeth said. “Or when something bad is happening, you let your Star Power shine, and you’re happier.”

Whether she knows it or not, Elizabeth may have a future in marketing, because her explanation of the Star Power term that Girls on the Run employs goes to the heart of what the program is trying to accomplish. 

The Central Florida branch of GOTR has 55 sites up and running this fall, including several in Southwest and West Orange, and one of the more obvious goals of the program is to get girls physically active — but there is more to it than that. 

“Our stated mission, is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident,” said Karen Allen, executive director of Girls on the Run Central Florida. “We use running and running games, because we believe the combination of the physical (activity) and the learning is really what makes the difference.”

Growing self-confidence in the more than 1,400 girls participating — and teaching them healthy habits that can last a lifetime — is more important to the GOTR mantra than how fast the girls run. It’s why the program’s culmination each semester — a regional 5K that brings girls together from across Central Florida — is untimed. 

It’s also why more local schools are seeking out the program as an offering for their students.

“We grow very organically,” Allen said. “As teachers found out about the program, they would bring it to their schools — that’s really how it’s grown.”

More than running

An after-school program, Girls on the Run is hosted at schools across the region with two practices each week, spanning a 10-week curriculum. The girls will meet with the coaching staff — a combination of volunteers and at least one faculty sponsor — and go over the day’s lesson and agenda. The girls will do a warmup, strengthening and stretching exercises, and then the main workout. The main workout changes a little each week, but its purpose is to help the girls gradually build their endurance so they can complete the big 5K at the end.

After the girls are done working out, they gather again, usually in a classroom setting, and review the day’s lesson. Other topics — nutrition, for instance — are reviewed. And then, usually, an energy award is presented.

“They love the energy award — they freak out for that,” said Ruth Hey, a volunteer at the Windermere Elementary chapter.

"It makes me feel confident, because when I’m running, I feel stronger."

— Maya Bushee

Ruth has three daughters who have participated in the program. Her oldest, Grace, joined Girls on the Run eight years ago, as a third-grader. Now a student at Olympia High, Grace — who Ruth says hated running, originally — is on the cross-country team.

Indeed, as it ages — Girls on the Run is now 10 years old in Central Florida — the program increasingly touts its record of instilling lifelong habits. The curriculum is designed to encourage the girls to do activities outside of the formal practices, and 10-year-old Maya Bushee is a good example.

Bushee, who also plays volleyball and basketball, has been in the program at Windermere Elementary for two years and credits it with helping her improve enough to run 5Ks outside of it. She says she ran the most recent Run Among the Lakes 5K in Windermere.

“It makes me feel confident, because when I’m running, I feel stronger,” Maya said.


So much fun

Not all the girls run 5Ks on their own, but they all do complete the 5K at the end of the program. The event features “Sole Mates” — volunteers who fundraise and then run alongside each girl in the race — to cheer the girls on as they run. This year’s 5K is Dec. 8 and will take place at Eagles Nest Park in MetroWest. To celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary in Central Florida, the untimed race is open to the public.

“(The 5K) really is the highlight — it gives them a tangible way of showing that they can set goals, work hard and accomplish something,” Karen said.

The benefits to the program are myriad and also include a social element. Ruth and Karen both say Girls on the Run enables girls to make new friends.

“The first day they come in here and a lot of them don’t know each other, but within two or three weeks, they all now each other’s names, and they’re cheering for and encouraging each other,” Ruth said.

As the program celebrates 10 years, there is a growing body of evidence that it makes a lasting impact.

“We know that it does, because we often get (former participants) who come back to us,” Karen said. “They participated in Girls on the Run previously and now they want to coach — so we know that it makes a lifetime impact.”


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