Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

May 12, 2012

Fitness program builds self-esteem in pre-teens

BRISTOL — Thirteen girls sit in a circle outside Bristol Elementary on a warm afternoon in early May as social worker and Girls on the Run liaison Gayla Konanz leads them in stretching exercises.

These girls are different ages. They come from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds. But they have one thing in common — they are all training to cross the finish line at the May 19 Girls on the Run 5K.

While completing the 5K is the short-term goal, the 10-week training course provides each girl with lessons to draw on for a lifetime.

Konanz and a host of volunteers are adamant that this internationally-based program isn’t just about running.

“A lot of girls these days are not emotionally healthy. There’s quite a bit of stress in their lives,” Konanz said. “This program shows them they can handle life. It pushes home that they are strong.”

Girls on the Run is the brain child of North Carolina resident Molly Baker. Tired of being defined by others and wanting to find real self worth, Baker created a program that focused on both physical and emotional strength.

In 1996, Girls on the Run began with 13 girls. The 10-week curriculum includes walking and running exercises and interactive discussions about healthy eating, leadership, cooperation and debunking commercial images of beauty — as well as giving back to the community.

The program aims to provide the tools for pre-teens to fight against substance/alcohol abuse, eating disorders, early sexual activity, sedentary lifestyles and depression.

Today, Girls on the Run has councils in more than 170 cities across North America. In 2010, 80,000 girls ran or walked a 5K at 3,700 sites.

“You are so much stronger than you think you are!” Konanz said.

Konanz was instrumental in bringing the program to Bristol Elementary.

“I started running clubs at other elementary schools where I’ve worked,” Konanz said. “However, Girls on the Run has such a complete curriculum already in place. It gets them outside, working together and shows them how strong their bodies are.”

Konanz worked with Amy Collier, the executive council director for Girls on the Run Michiana to bring the program to Elkhart County.

By early March, the program was under way with several volunteers on board. One of those volunteers is Michelle Byers of Goshen.

“It’s so much more than a running program,” Byers said. “The curriculum is so full of wonderful lessons that they might not hear otherwise. It gives them tools to use when they encounter peer pressure, gossiping and bullying.”

Byers said the program helps the third- through fifth-graders interpret social images of beauty, learn to be happy in their own skin and more comfortable in being proud of themselves.

“This really changes how they interact with each other,” Byers said. “They support each other. They are all a team.”

Byers had unknowingly bought into the Girls on the Run philosophy five years ago when she signed up for her first 5K.

“I thought I could get by — finish with my own natural ability!” laughed Byers. “But I was so disappointed that I couldn’t finish without walking.”

She then challenged herself to train.

“Setting goals is a powerful tool,” Byers said. “I had to be motivated. There are no other variables. You get out of it what you put into it. And I learned so much along the way.”

Byers recently competed in her second half-marathon in Indianapolis.

Two years ago she heard about Girls on the Run through her cousin’s daughter in Edwardsburg, Mich., where the program was already in place.

“The program wasn’t in Elkhart County yet and I really wanted to get involved,” Byers said.

Byers is now the volunteer coordinator for Girls on the Run Michiana.

“I am amazed at the overwhelming support for this program,” Byers said.

On Monday, April 30, the 13 girls met for a trial 5K. Friends and family came out in the pouring rain to cheer the girls on to the finish line.

“I have to say, I was a little nervous,” Konanz said. “But they rocked it! They never stopped!”

After they finished, Byers said they asked the girls to describe how they felt in one word.

“Some of the answers were, ‘proud’, ‘bold’, ‘excited’ and ‘happy.’” Byers said. “It was amazing. They were all encouraging each other. There were no complaints the entire time.”

Girls on the Run 5K, sponsored by Meijer, will be May 19 at John Adams High School. The noncompetitive run starts at 8 a.m., with festivities beginning at 7 a.m. Anyone wanting to participate can register at www.girlsontherunmichiana.org.

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