By LANDON WOODROOF
For more than a decade now, Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee has been helping local girls cultivate self-confidence and value physical activity.
The non-profit is a branch of the national Girls on the Run organization. Girls on the Run has branches in all 50 states and offers services to most areas in Tennessee.
The organization holds 10-week programs wherein girls in the 3rd through 8th grades are taught life skills to serve them far into adulthood. Physical activity is blended in with these life skills to produce an experience that benefits both body and mind.
Tiffany Patton is the executive director of Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee. She discussed the organization at Friday’s Rotary Club of Brentwood meeting.
The young people that Girls on the Run seek to serve are at a critical juncture in their lives.
“At age 9 girls self-confidence begins to drop and doesn’t really pick back up again until they’re in their 20s,” Patton said. Many girls become victims of bullying around this time also.
It is also the age when traditional gender roles began to be enforced, so that, for instance, a young girl who has previously loved math, may begin to drift away from it because she feels like society teaches that math is for boys.
That sort of dynamic extends to physical activity as well.
“You’ll start to see them self-select out of being involved in sports and physical activity, which has longterm consequences for heart disease and other physical issues,” Patton said.
The point is not to point girls toward particular disciplines, but simply to let them come to treasure their own individuality.
“We’re not telling everybody they need to be a scientist or love physical activity, but it’s really about telling people whatever it is that you do like to do, don’t let the world tell you that you can’t just because of your gender,” Patton said.
Girls on the Run tries to instill these values in its kids through the 10-week programs the organization offers.
Patton said the programs are uniquely suited to holistically serve young girls. Whereas some organizations offer services that are intended to foster personal development and others offer purely physical activity, Girls on the Run does both.
The research-based curriculum focuses on what Patton called the 5 Cs: competence, caring, connection, character and contribution to society.
Girls meet twice a week for 75 to 90 minutes and take part in what could be termed physical lessons. For instance, rather than just go run 10 laps around a track, girls may be asked to run a lap and then stop and write something positive about themselves or others.
“It helps to reinforce the lesson in a way that helps them to get moving, but keep the focus on that positive development in mind,” Patton said.
Groups are kept to about 15 girls each.
“The teams are intentionally small because we are trying to build a safe space for girls to explore their identity and learn who they are and talk about the challenges they face at that age,” she said.
At the end of the 10-week program, the girls do special service projects and run a 5K. Girls come up with their own service project ideas. A few years ago, one group chose to write thank-you notes to first responders at the Boston Marathon bombings.
Since its establishment 10 years ago, Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee has partnered with 71 schools in the counties it serves: Davidson, Montgomery, Rutherford, Sumner and Williamson.
The number of girls it is able to reach has also grown. Patton said the organization hopes to have served 780 girls by the close of this fiscal year.
Patton said that Williamson County was definitely a place she hoped Girls on the Run could expand its work in. She said the group probably worked with only three schools there last year.
There are a number of different ways that people can get involved with Girls on the Run. People can sponsor runners in the 5K or they can join one of the organization’s special support groups, the Starting Line or SoleMates. Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee also hosts a big fundraiser each year, the Sneaker Soiree.
However one chooses to contribute, the goal is still the same.
“Girls today like all young people are bombarded with messages from all over the place about what they should do and what they shouldn’t do,” Patton said. “How they should look, what they should study, where they should go. The messages they get come from outside to tell them who they should be and what they should be worth, and we all know the best way for you to really grow into who you are and discovery who you are and what makes you a contributing member to society is to find that from within. Girls on the Run is here to help girls find that.”