Six middle school girls clad in shorts and tennis shoes gathered by a cone in the center of a grassy field behind the Kroc Center last week.
A sprint away on either side was another cone, one representing the “girl box” and one represeting “out of the girl box.”
The “girl box,” they had just learned from their Girls on the Run coach Katie Hansen, is any time a girl changes her behavior in order to make people like her.
“Doing things that aren’t part of your character to fit in,” Hansen told them at the beginning of the meeting.
Hansen read a list of behaviors – such as “people pleasing” and “dieting all the time” – and the girls ran to the cone that fit the category into which they thought each behavior belonged.
After a half a dozen behaviors, the girls began to get winded, ultimately walking only halfway toward each cone. This was only the second meeting of the season. By the end of the 10-week program, they will run a 5K.
After the activity, they gathered around some benches to talk about the behaviors described and why they belonged in those categories.
This is the main purpose of Girls on the Run – to teach positive self-image and healthy behavior for girls in third through eighth grades.
Stephany White started the local chapter of the national nonprofit in 2009. As her own daughter, Sarah, approached middle school, she faced issues with body image and self-esteem. White considered starting a weight-loss camp in the area when a friend mentioned Girls on the Run.
“She said, ‘I know you, and it’s not just that you want them to lose weight. You want to get to the core issues.’I went home and I Googled Girls on the Run, and the very first sentence I saw was ‘Teaching girls to accept who they are, exactly how they are,’” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m doing that on a daily basis. I can do that on a bigger level.’”
The first season, Girls on the Run of the CSRA served 19 girls in Aiken. The second season, the club expanded into Richmond County and served 49 girls.
Last year, more than 256 girls went through the program, which now serves Aiken, Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.
White hopes to expand into McDuffie County by spring.
The program is broken into two groups. Though Girls on the Run is the organization name, it is also the name of the curriculum for girls in third through fifth grades. Girls on Track is for girls in sixth through eighth grades.
The girls meet twice a week for about 90 minutes. The 10-week session is broken into three parts. In the first group of lessons, girls learn to accept themselves exactly how they are.
“It teaches them to embrace whatever makes them unique, special and different, and to celebrate that,” White said.
The second group of lessons teaches teamwork, and the third teaches them how to to impact their community.
Through it all, they’re running and training for a 5K, which gives the girls a sense of accomplishment.
Mara Solas, 11, ran the 5K with the program last year.
“It was really scary,” she said. “I was actually really scared to do it because I didn’t know what it would be like. I thought it was going to be tiring, (and) I wasn’t going to finish it. But when I finished it I really felt proud of myself. I felt like I really accomplished something, so I really enjoyed doing the 5K.”
Solas enjoyed the program so much she told her friend Citrus Lopez all about it. This season, Lopez joined her.
“Between school, then going home and doing my homework by then, having dinner then dark, I figured out there was something I needed to do to get more active,” Lopez said.