Grace Appell, now 11 years old and a sixth-grader at Washington West Elementnary, finished a 5K distance event in St. Louis this past spring. She didn’t run the whole way, but she kept moving forward the entire time until she finished.
It was an empowering experience for her, said Grace’s mom, Aimee Appell. “Really cool” is how Grace described it.
“I never would have thought I could do that,” she told The Missourian, which started her thinking . . . “What else can I do that I didn’t think I could?”
That’s exactly the point, said Terri Morgan, Appell’s coach with Girls on the Run, a program that combines training for distance running with character-building and self-esteem lessons.
“It’s a running program, but so much more,” said Morgan.
Designed specifically for girls in grades three, four and five, Girls on the Run is a nonprofit program that “inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”
Teams limited to between eight and 17 girls meet twice a week for 10 weeks in the fall and/or spring. Each 90-minute meeting includes a running activity to build up the girls’ endurance for an end-of-the-program 5K run with all of the Girls on the Run programs around the St. Louis metro area, but also a topic for discussion and an activity.
Topics can range from bullying, gossip, listening, how to stand up for yourself, having a disability and more, said Morgan.
The lessons are designed to “inspire girls to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem-solving skills and make healthy decisions,” the Girls on the Run website notes.
New Haven Elementary was one of the first sites for a Girls on the Run team in Franklin County back in fall 2009. Since then the program there has grown to three teams of 17 girls each (the maximum) and spread to more than half a dozen other schools across the county — Washington West, South Point, Clearview and St. Gertrude schools in Washington; Lonedell R-14 (which also offers the Girls on Track program for girls in sixth- through eighth-grade); Edgar Murray Elementary in St. Clair; and, new this fall, Zitzman Elementary in Pacific.
(There also is a Girls on Track program at St. Clair Junior High School.)
Eileen Roth, school counselor at New Haven Elementary who organized that first team, isn’t surprised by the number of teams in the area. She said she knew right away the program would be a success.
“It’s just a high quality program,” she said.
As a distance runner herself, Roth loves how the program builds up girls’ physical endurance, but more than that, she loves the way the program builds up the girls’ self-confidence.
“It really teaches each girl to be her own person, to be unique, proud of her own talents. It focuses on individuality and really honors that.
“And it’s just fun!” Roth remarked.
Grace Appell also uses the word “fun” to describe Girls on the Run.
“It lifts you up so much. It keeps you positive — you can do it,” she said.
One of her favorite aspects of the program is the “energy awards” the girls give out to each other as a show of gratitude and praise for a girl’s character.
The “dead bug” is when a girl’s teammates drop to the ground waving their arms and legs at her. Sparkles are when they wave their fingers back and forth while they raise and lower their arms.
Looking back, Grace admits she was hesitant to sign up for Girls on the Run when the program came to her school last spring because, “it sounded like a lot of running.”
And it is, but it doesn’t feel that way because the buildup is gradual and there is so much more involved than just running, she said.
Grace’s mom said that as the program advanced, she noticed her daughter becoming more confident, willing to speak up about things to others.
Lori Strubberg, whose daughter, Paige Hall, participates in the Girls on the Run program in Washington, said she too noticed a boost to her daughter’s self-esteem after last season.
“ . . . This program not only taught her to be active and health-conscious, it also gave her self-esteem,” said Strubberg. “It gave her the ability to go out and meet new people, to try to encourage others, along with herself, to push herself a little bit harder to accomplish something she really wanted to do.”
More Girls Welcome
Morgan, who doesn’t have any daughters of her own (she has two teenage boys), so believed in the Girls on the Run program that she took it upon herself to get programs started at Clearview Elementary, then South Point and Washington West last year.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” said Morgan. “It’s such a good experience.”
She personally recruited numerous volunteers to serve as coaches and practice partners. Many are her friends and co-workers who also don’t have elementary-age daughters, but who have come to love the program as much as she does.
Dawn Destefano, who works with Morgan at Mercy Hospital Washington, recommends the program to anyone even slightly interested.
“Girls on the Run is way different,” she said. “You will get way more out of it than you put in.”
Destefano said she went into the program agreeing to volunteer once a week, but found her self there for both weekly meetings. Seeing the transformation that each girl experiences is the most rewarding part, she said.
“You see them sort of change . . . come out of their shell, interacting with each other more, having more confidence.
“It’s fun, too, seeing them be able to do the things they said they couldn’t do . . . seeing their smiles and that sense of accomplishment.”
Now Morgan wants to spread the word even more about the program and encourage others to bring Girls on the Run to their schools.
The deadline to start a site for the fall was back in May, but there is still time to get a site established for the spring. Applications are due by Nov. 1.
Once the application has been preliminarily approved, Girls on the Run St. Louis meets with the site liaison, other coaches and ideally a school administrator at the location to review the space and to answer any questions.
It’s important to note that coaches and volunteers do not have to be experienced runners, said Morgan.
Girls on the Run provides volunteer coaches the training they will need to make the program successful, as well as all supplies and the program curriculum to follow at each meeting.
The coaches determine which two days the program will be offered, said Morgan. Meetings should be at least an hour, but 90 minutes is recommended.
Most sites practice right after school on the school grounds, the Girls on the Run literature notes.
There is a sliding scale fee involved for participating in Girls on the Run. The fee per girl is based on the socioeconomic situation at each site, said Morgan.
At some sites, girls may have to pay as little as $25, while others pay up to $150. At Washington West, for example, the fee is set at $85 per girl.
There also are full and partial scholarships available, as well as payment plans, Morgan noted, stressing that no girl will ever be turned down because of a lack of ability to pay.
“Even if you don’t have running shoes, they will get you a pair,” she said.
The fee covers 20 lessons over the course of 10 weeks, the registration fee for the 5K run event held in St. Louis at the end of the season, healthy snacks at each meeting, a Girls on the Run T-shirt, water bottle and 5K fun finisher’s medal.
More information about Girls on the Run and what is required to get a new site started is available online at http://girlsontherunstlouis.org. Morgan also is willing to talk with anyone who is interested in trying to start a new site in this area.
“I would love to see the program expand,” she said, “but I can’t stretch myself any further.”
To contact Morgan, people can call her cell at 636-834-6120 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.