Anyone who didn’t know better saw just the simple joy of girls breaking the finish line of a 5k race in Saturday’s sunshine.
But the Girls on the Run program in several LINC Caring Communities sites had already changed lives long before the teams of girls and their partners took on the season-ending challenge at Children’s Mercy Park May 4.
LINC staffers and the many volunteers who supported the after-school program watched the exhausted runners, knowing the richer stories behind their triumphant smiles.
They celebrated new friendships.
Self-confidence and love.
One of those runners, Troost Elementary Site Coordinator Jamie Braden knew, had been living essentially homeless but had made all the Girls on the Run sessions and practices because her mother, despite the difficulties, was determined to get her there.
Some of the runners, running together — even holding hands — were girls joining with immigrants from Garfield Elementary’s New Americans class, Garfield site coordinator Danielle Small said.
They had stood apart from each other, cautious, when the new school year began, Small said.
And even though some of the elementary school girls might seem weary and complain, “Ooh, my legs hurt,” Faxon Elementary site coordinator Yolanda Robinson said, they all had fallen in love with Girls on the Run.
The homeless mother at Troost who had made sure her daughter was able to run knew what the volunteers and staff had done for her girl, Braden said.
“She thanked us,” Braden said. “She said, ‘I know an angel when I see one.’”
The Kansas City chapter of the national Girls on the Run program has been carrying out a mission “to inspire girls to recognize their inner strength and celebrate what makes them one of a kind.”
LINC has been in partnership with Girls on the Run for seven years and this year more than 150 girls participated from 11 LINC sites:
In the Kansas City Public Schools at Border Star Montessori, Faxon, Garfield, Hale Cook, Hartman, Longfellow, Primitivo Garcia and Troost elementary schools; in the Fort Osage School District at Buckner and Elm Grove elementary schools; and in the North Kansas City School District at Topping Elementary.
Girls on the Run this year supported LINC site runners with $45,000 in support and scholarships.
The girls not only learn how to train during the 10-week program each year, but they also learn about nutrition, social skills, public service and confidence building exercises.
It involves parents and caregivers in ways that spark fresh enthusiasm in support of the program, with parents often serving as the girls’ running partners
Border Star Montessori site coordinator Shelley Taylor-Doran watched one of her school’s girls run with her dad, who was a regular runner, but had never run with his daughter before.
“It was a challenge,” Taylor-Doran said. As it was with many of the new runners, there was weariness and some walking during the runs, she said, “but they were sharing it together.”
The staffers and volunteers see the beginning of lasting friendships among the runners.
“Girls who typically avoid (such physical activity) want to participate,” said Primitivo Garcia Elementary site coordinator Prentice Terrance.
“And then you get parent buy-in,” Robinson of Faxon said, counting that as a victory that reaches beyond the program. “Parents are looking forward to it — cha-ching!”
Site coordinator Sarah Duzell at Hartman Elementary purposely tried to draw both active girls and girls who would ordinarily shy away from a running group.
It got the girls “out of their cliques,” Duzell said. “You saw them get engaged in something in LINC. It was good.”
In some cases, Girls on the Run helped create community partnerships as well. The program offers scholarships to support a lot of runners, but Hale Cook Elementary had more runners than the program could support on one team, site coordinator Qiana McGee said. But City Gym in Waldo stepped in to sponsor runners, she said.
In the end, Girls on the Run helps grow character that will carry on.
“Those girls who stick (with the program) end up helping the little ones,” Robinson said.
In some cases, site coordinators said, girls who graduated to middle school come back to the elementary after-school program to help.
The program begins with 3rd graders, but in many cases younger girls in 1st and 2nd grade in the after-school programs eagerly go out to run with their older schoolmates.
They’ll be ready to go, then, next year. Girls on the Run catches on fast.