By JENNIFER MEIER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN – This is not the track team. Nor is it just an after school program to train elementary girls to run a 5K.
“Girls on the Run is so much more than that,” said Chamberlain Elementary School Counselor and the program’s head coach Kelly Johnson. “I know and I think they are realizing that they are learning how to be confident, how to choose friends, how to stand up to bullying – really how to be your best self.”
On Tuesday, nearing the end of Girls on the Run 10-week, 20-lesson program, 16 girls stretched to prepare for a practice 5K.
Then they began 31 laps around the school yard, stopping every third lap to earn a sticker.
“In practice we’ve gotten up to two miles,” Johnson said. “So today they’ll see and feel what 3.1 miles is really like.”
Although Girls on the Run has several sites locally, Johnson heard about the program while on Twitter with other school counselors across the nation.
“Unfortunately there’s a lot of relational aggression even in elementary schools today,” Johnson said. “I know the positivity that running brought to my life and I thought it would be a perfect program for this school.”
The 10-week curriculum for third through sixth-grade girls includes walking and running exercises and interactive discussions about healthy eating, leadership, cooperation and giving back to the community while debunking commercial images of beauty.
Another goal of the program is to arm young girls with the tools to fight against substance/alcohol abuse, eating disorders, sexual activity, sedentary lifestyles and depression.
The program that began in 1996 with 13 girls now boasts Girls on the Run programs in 200 sites across North America with more than 130,000 participants.
“I began talking with the Girls on the Run Michiana volunteer coordinator last summer,” Johnson said. “She told me to spend the next school year finding sponsors for the program.”
Maple City Healthcare stepped up to the plate almost immediately and became the Chamberlain School sponsor.
“I never thought it would happen this year. It is amazing,” Johnson said. “And IU Goshen Health wants to sponsor us next year. We couldn’t have done it without the help of the school and the Goshen community.”
The interest the program sparked also amazed Johnson.
“We have a waiting list!” she said. “I wish all the girls who signed up could do this.”
Chamberlain teachers Lani Iemma and Carol Kinchen help coach with Johnson. And Nayla Jimenez, Chief Operating Officer at Maple City Healthcare donates her time to practice with and help motivate the girls.
On Saturday, May 18 local Girls on the Run Chamberlain site will meet up with other sites at South Bend John Adams High School for their first 5K run.
“It’s not a competitive race, it’s a celebration,” Johnson said. “They all wear bibs – but they all have the number 1 on them.”
Each girl will run with an older female ‘running buddy’ who will assure that they stay safe and motivated throughout the race.
For Chamberlain students like nine-year-old Nevaeh Dzialak and 10-year-old Jasmine Medina, the journey to the 5K has already brought benefits.
I had trouble with confidence. I would never have gone out for a sport before this,” Dzialak said. “Now I’m in volleyball and I think I will try out for cheerleading. Now I feel like I can stand up for myself. I would recommend this for all girls.”
The soft-spoken Media also felt like she had a confidence problem.
“I can really be myself now and not just try to act cool,” she said. “I don’t make fun of people anymore because that’s just not right. I think I’ve always been shy. My mom tells me that everyone makes mistakes. So with my mom and this program, I can do more things.”
Johnson is also pleased with the progress so far.
“You know, pre-teens and teenage girls are much more alike than different anywhere you go. So the program is perfect for this school – it’s perfect for any school,” she said. “Last week in practice I asked the girls to raise their hands if they felt they could completely be themselves in this group. Everyone raised their hands.”