- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

STRASBURG, Ill. (AP) - For three years, Girls on the Run has been preparing elementary and junior high girls to cross finish lines. At Stewardson-Strasburg schools, the girls are already seeing some of the benefits as they prepare to take on an upcoming marathon.

“We encourage each other,” said Jasmine Ward before one of the girl’s weekly practices. “We just keep trying to make sure we’re not focusing on the running.”

There is something of a divided focus to Girls on the Run. While the program works to prepare third through sixth grade students to run a 5K, there’s also a lesson element, focusing on dealing with some of the challenges young girls face, whether it is bullying, peer pressure, self-esteem, respect or responsibility.

Beth Gillespie, council director for Girls on the Run East Central Illinois, said interest in the program has ballooned in recent years, with 1,300 girls across seven counties participating. The program aims for girls to be able to set and accomplish goals themselves with the support of their trusted peers.

“We really just want the girls to realize they’re the boss of their own brain and can do anything they set their minds to,” she said. “There’s such a problem with negative self talk. Women are told thousands of times how they’re not enough. We’re helping make sure that we can build a space where the girls are celebrated.”

For some of the participants, the creation of a more positive space has allowed for a change in the way they view themselves.

“I think it’s helped me, because I feel better about myself,” said Sierra Cameron. “I used to think a lot of negative things and about how I couldn’t do it, but now I think positive things about how I can do it.”

For others, it’s been a way to put emotional challenges and difficult circumstances into perspective.

“It helps me concentrate more and helps me be more supportive and nice,” said Cameron, who has been in Girls on the Run for two years. “The first year I was here I wasn’t really the nicest person in my class but when i joined here, I can control my anger a little more.”

Giving girls the tools to deal with those challenges is one of the main keys to Girls on the Run. Gillespie said the early lessons in each of the sessions focus on bringing all of the girls together as a team, willing to celebrate each other and build a support structure for one another. From there, the challenge is making sure the girls can take the lessons they learn in Girls on the Run and apply them to challenges in the classroom, at home and in their communities. Ultimately, it’s about empowerment to make a a difference, both on the track and in the girls’ day-to-day lives.

“Our goal is to always ensure that we have quality programming and making sure that they are feeling stronger and more confident about their limitless potential,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said every girl who is able to overcome the 5K and then tackle the daily challenges young girls face is a success story. To her, giving the girls the tools to show they can set a goal and complete it is the real challenge and hearing their successes its own reward.

“Ever since I started Girls on the Run last year, I’ve felt like I can do anything,” said fourth-grader Jozlynn Rich. “When I started, I didn’t feel like I could do it and my heart was pounding and I didn’t think I could do it. Now, I don’t think that way.”

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Source: Effingham Daily News, https://bit.ly/1DB6Mzd

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Information from: Effingham Daily News, https://www.effinghamdailynews.com


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