Girls on the Run aims to keep bodies—and minds—active
Gab Casieri never liked running. Growing up, it was just something she had to do in gym class—running wasn’t something she wanted to spend her free time doing.
Casieri, 49, changed her mind seven years ago, though, when a friend convinced her to participate in a sprint triathlon. She was confident in her swimming and biking abilities, and after completing the Couch to 5K training program, she blossomed into a confident runner, finishing her first triathlon in 2010.
Now, Casieri is an avid runner, helping young girls discover the sport exactly the way she did, with few extra lessons sprinkled into the mix. She currently coaches with Girls on the Run, a national organization that aims to help girls in 5th-8th grade reach their highest potential with a program that integrates running into the curriculum.
Casieri, a library media specialist at Lawrence Intermediate School, started with the program in April and coaches at Lawrence’s Village Park location. Registration for the fall season, which runs twice a week from September to November, is now open.
“I say this to the girls, that running is your own private time,” she said. “It’s a chance to think about things, to think about life and school. I love running outside. I saw a snake yesterday. A couple of weeks ago, I saw an egret. You’re out in nature, so you see things you might not see otherwise. It’s the idea that looking at things and thinking about things while running can be fun.”
Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina, with one group of just 15 girls. As of this year, Girls on the Run NJ program director Anne Klein said, the organization has served over 1 million girls.
At the crux of the organization is building self-esteem and encouraging girls to be comfortable in their own skin, with running and physical activity woven into each lesson. A typical session starts with taking a few minutes to discuss the topic of the day—each meeting focuses on its own lesson. Sometimes, coaches use question and answer sessions to get the girls thinking. Other times, games or ice breakers get the ball rolling. In every lesson, though, the girls are active. Running, in some form, is always part of the curriculum.
“The first part is tapping into themselves, looking at themselves,” Klein said. “Then, we work our way into the next piece, which is how we interact with our peers. We talk about choosing friendships, gossip, bullying, being a bystander. They’re all hot topics in having kids interact with others. We use games and activities within groups to take these lessons outside of Girls on the Run.”
Sometimes, the girls will run up to three miles over the course of a lesson without realizing how much distance they have logged.
“It’s broken up into different groupings,” Girls on the Run Robbinsville coach Lynn Young said. “I like it because the kids can never get bored. An hour and 15 minutes of straight running, we never do that. We’ll play a game like tag to keep them going and keep them interested.”
Games, warmup relays and more are important to the program, Klein said. They get the girls active and running, sometimes without realizing it, which Klein added is great for the girls who don’t like to run.
And there are plenty of girls who don’t necessarily enjoy running. Young signed her daughter, Julia, up for the program two years ago—Julia expressed interest after a family friend participated in a Delaware County, Pennsylvania, program. Julia, 10, also wanted to start jogging with Young, who is a runner herself.
Julia doesn’t always enjoy it. She looks forward to the discussion and socialization aspects of Girls on the Run meetings the most.
“She still doesn’t like to run, but she loves the camaraderie that you get,” said Young, who started running five years ago. “Even though so many girls eventually age out, it’s a fun, safe, nonjudgmental place. It’s about being in a group with 15 other girls where nobody is judging you.”
Jane Hall, a Girls on the Run Bordentown coach, sees a similar pattern in her groups. If the girls age out or decide they want to move on to another sport, they’re able to take the lessons they learned in Girls on the Run and apply them to something like a group project at school, or playing on a soccer team.
“I really just like the girl power aspect of it,” Hall said. “I’m really into running programs for girls. You don’t hear about them often. I did a junior track program in elementary school. [Girls on the Run] has that combined with self esteem and girl power, something that’s needed in today’s society. There’s a void to be filled.”
Hall, a business analyst, first heard about Girls on the Run through her cousin, who works for the organization in Missouri. She reached out to Klein about two and a half years ago and started as an assistant in Princeton before becoming a head coach in Bordentown.
She noted that all Girls on the Run coaches are volunteers, something she noted parents are grateful for.
“It’s such a cool program,” Hall said. “The organization has established ways of doing things. It’s easy to get involved with. You have a great support system and very involved coaches. I’m really happy to see this great community support. The Bordentown parents are really into it. Last session, everyone was there for every lesson. What struck me at the end was how appreciative the girls and parents were. It’s so much fun.”
Every season also includes a community impact piece where the girls learn about communities and what it means to be a part of one. The girls create their own community service projects, deciding on one cause to benefit as a group—some focus in on a hyperlocal issues, while others think bigger.
Klein said animal-related projects—donating the funds from a bake sale to a local shelter, hosting pet food and product drives—are popular. Another favorite is Operation Beautiful, a national movement where participants write positive messages on Post-It notes and share them in public spaces. Girls on the Run Princeton recently started a GoFundMe page to help offset the cost of a wheelchair swing at a local school.
“I love the idea that it’s getting girls out running, but the focus is on them doing something great,” Casieri said. “It helps them connect with themselves. That is the best part.”
Registration for the fall season, which runs from September to November, is now open. For more information, or to register, visit girlsontherunnj.org.