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Madison House, National Program Team To Promote Healthy Lifestyles for Pre-Teen Girls

Fifteen girls at Johnson Elementary School in Charlottesville have developed a greater sense of self by running together after school, thanks to the support of Madison House, the student volunteer center at the University of Virginia.

Madison House organizes service programs with U.Va. students to address the needs of the community, and this fall, the center partnered with Girls on the Run to introduce the national program’s curricula at Johnson.

In 1996, Molly Barker, a four-time Hawaii Ironman tri-athlete, established Girls on the Run in Charlotte, N.C., piloting the lesson-based program with the help of 13 girls. A former high school teacher and track coach, Barker had also worked as a counselor addressing the needs of women with eating disorders, depression and addictions.

Since then, the program and its curricula have become a nationwide grassroots movement of girls and their concerned teachers and parents. With the help of more than 37,000 volunteers, the program is currently serving more than 100,000 girls in nearly 200 cities across North America.

Girls On the Run’s stated mission is to increase each girl’s capacity to make positive and healthy choices by teaching them to move away from risky behaviors.

The intervention  of the program’s curricula – teaching life skills through group processing, running games and workouts – at a vulnerable point in a girl’s development can reduce the likelihood of eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and suicide, the organization says.

The program promotes a strong sense of identity, self-confidence, a healthy body image, teamwork and community awareness.

From August to December, 15 girls in the third to fifth grades at Johnson Elementary –school motto: “We are family” – volunteered with their families to enroll in a 12-week training program that met after school.

Using a noncompetitive 5K racing celebration as a goal, U.Va. students and certified coaches volunteered to lead a group of girls through a research-based curriculum.

Kelly York, a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, said she has long believed that sports offer young people the best training to prepare them for working with others and building confidence. York had read about the Girls On the Run program in high school and was inspired to get involved.

A parent from Johnson Elementary contacted Madison House about starting the program at the school, and Taylor Richardson, also a fourth-year student at McIntire and the organization’s head program director for athletics, asked York to spearhead U.Va. student involvement with Girls on the Run there.

“This was the perfect opportunity for me to share my love of running and pass on the values I have carried from sports to a group of young girls,” York said.

At Johnson, York worked with two school coaches, Emily Branson and Hope Mills, to identify the best way to introduce U.Va. student volunteers into the program. The five U.Va. student-volunteers began meeting regularly to plan how they could support the two head coaches in motivating the young girls with encouragement and leadership.

“We wanted to serve as role models of teamwork and to help the girls find their inner confidence,” York said. “We wanted them to shine by championing the values of Girls on the Run.”

At the end of every practice, the girls nominated their teammates for one of many awards – including a superstar award, a hustle award and others they created. As the girls learned to celebrate the successes of their teammates, they learned the value of supporting their friends and then feeling affirmed knowing that others appreciated their efforts. 

“I made new friends at Girls on the Run, and learned more about the importance of exercise and how good it makes me feel afterwards,” one fourth-grader said.

Each practice offered the coaches and volunteers a chance to focus on one lesson. One that resonated with the girls was “Standing up to Peer Pressure.”

As the girls stood in a circle to stretch before their run, they talked about situations where they had felt negative pressure to do something like gossiping that went against their conscience. The girls would then discuss ways to resist peer pressure, such as standing up to a friend who is bullying a fellow student.

After the lesson, the girls participated in a variety of running activities that incorporated team goals, emphasizing the value of collaborative teamwork.

York and the other volunteers consistently encouraged the girls to run at their own pace. In this way, the girls learned to find the best pace to continue running the entire practice. By changing the goal from racing to just finishing the run, the girls learned the value of setting their own personal goals and celebrating personal victories.

“I learned about running at my own pace, and I learned that I actually liked running more when I did,” a third-grader said.

“I have loved developing relationships with these girls,” York said. “Watching them get faster was fun, but most important was seeing them grow as individuals, reach out to new members of the team, develop friendships with one another and stand up for what is right.”

On Nov. 17, with more than 500 girls registered to race, Sweet Briar College and Girls on the Run of Greater Lynchburg hosted the GOTR of Central Virginia Fall 2012 Celebration 5K, a “fun run” that served as the culmination of the region’s fall program.

The run took a picturesque route from an old train station through campus and along the Dairy Loop, winding its way past a riding center and through the woods.

For most girls, the noncompetitive event marked the first time they had ever attempted a physical goal of such magnitude. According to the Girls On the Run philosophy, completing the 5K gives the girls an incredible feeling of strength and a real sense of accomplishment.

“Seeing the girls from Johnson Elementary elated with joy as they crossed the finish line at Sweet Briar was more exciting for me than any personal athletic victory,” York said.

Each week at Madison House, more than 3,000 U.Va. students volunteer their time and energy to better the community and themselves. They give more than 110,000 hours of service each year, valued at $2.4 million.

“It is a model that has worked for U.Va. students and the Charlottesville and Albemarle community for over 42 years now,” said Elizabeth Bass, executive director of Madison House. “I am proud to be a part of the team as a former volunteer and as a current staff member.”

Every program – Girls on the Run is just one of many – has a student director who works up to 10 hours each week to organize their program and coordinate volunteers to ensure that Madison House continues to provide valuable service to the community.

“We are really excited about starting and growing a new program under the athletics programs at Madison House,” program director Richardson said. “The mission and action steps of Girls on the Run fit very well with our volunteer model.

“We hope to grow a number of teams and sites around Charlottesville, like we did with Johnson Elementary, by engaging more student volunteers and community partners.” 

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