"I wonder," said Girls On The Run-Dane County Executive Director Sara Pickard, "if you may be able to reflect on your daughter's transformation through her GOTR experience?....I'd love your thoughts on what benefits she has received from her participation, strengths gained, beliefs formed, etc. Might that be something you would consider?"
When a writer receives an assignment that connects personal experience with at-large message, it is a gift. I cannot think of a greater gift than the ability to interview my own daughter about her experiences with the Girls On The Run program.
In truth, I hadn't imagined at first that she would participate in Girls On The Run for more than one session. The 10-week program is offered to over 700,000 elementary- and middle-school-aged girls at locations across the United States, Canada, and beyond. It is a grassroots, nonprofit program that is powered by an army of volunteer coaches.
She has completed Girls On The Run four times, and will likely continue participating until she ages out of the program.
At its heart, Girls On The Run is meant to allow young women to experience, discuss, reflect, and be empowered. Despite its name, it isn't really an athletic program; running is a means to an end, a way to strengthen oneself physically and mentally by taking on a big challenge (5000 meters is a tremendous distance for any young person to run!) - and, in the process, allow the transformative aspect of striving to work its magic.
On an evening in June, my daughter had this to say about Girls On The Run.
"I’m addicted to it," she said leaning forward earnestly, eyes bright. "I like that there’s learning and there’s running, but they’re joined together."
The learning bits refer to the Girls On The Run curriculum, a well-thought-out series of messages and activities that focus on subjects such as self-confidence, cultivating a positive body image, how to resist self-diminishing media characterizations of femininity, how to support others, and the damaging effects of bullying.
In short, good stuff.
"Self confidence is a pretty big [lesson]", she explained to her mother in a tone that made clear there were no hard feelings about the need to expand one's thoughts to a listener who is over the age of 35.
"I’ve definitely been plugged into the positive cord," she said. "See, there's a positive cord and a negative cord. You want to be plugged into the positive cord, which is filled with rainbows and unicorns. The negative cord is filled with gunk and goo and bad stuff. So you want to be plugged into the positive cord and around other people who are too. Who wants to be mopey and sad? It’s just not a good feeling."
I mused over this for a moment, considering. What about the times in life when Really Truly Awful Incredibly Bad Things happen? What then? How do you plug into the positive cord when there's nothing...really positive going on?
She had an answer at hand and didn't miss a beat. When bad things happen to a friend, she explained, "I try to comfort them, and listen," she said. "Listening is key. You don’t just want to talk."
Tell me more about what you've learned, I said. Like that rainbows and unicorns reference. What is that?
She smiled, willing to share. "[Rainbows and unicorns] is a pretty popular phrase in our group," she explained. These are things that "make you happy, they’re pretty, they’re nice. They basically make you giggle."
So, the reasoning goes, evoke them. Bring them into your life. Make them part of your thoughts. Because when we can laugh, we can connect. We can relax. And we can relate.
Even about hard things, cruel things....like bullying, something that not long ago was just simply accepted as part of Americana childhood, represented nostalgically as a rite of passage in movies like "A Christmas Story." Now, not so much.
Why is it important to talk about bullying?, I asked.
She responded without hesitation. "If it happens to you, you don’t just try to bury it inside of you. You have to open up and tell somebody. Otherwise it gets worse and worse."
Sometimes a parent has to stop and gather their composure, because the simple wisdom of what is before you takes you by surprise. This is what it's like to raise the next generation. They astonish you with their insight on a regular basis.
Could a running-and-empowerment after-school program really make a difference? Could it help someone spread peace, become more joyful, become more empathetic, become more confident?
I don't have an answer.
What I do know is that on the vast majority of mornings, my daughter bounds into our room saying, "MOM, MOM, I'M SO EXCITED ABOUT TODAY!"
On more days than not, she listens with keen insight to those around her.
On more days than not, she shows me how to live life with integrity, strength, compassion, and joy.
On more days than not, she is my right-hand woman at the tender age of nine. She is the one who says, "Hey, Mom, tell me about your day," on a day that has been a handful and a half. She is the one who cracks a joke at just the right moment and who tells me her favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote.
She is the one who is teaching me.
I know in my heart that every experience in her life has influenced her, and Girls On The Run is one of many influences. But I know full well - and full stop - that it is a positive and genuine influence. And I am forever grateful.
This idea is a simple one, an amazing one, and a life-changing one:
"We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams." This is the vision of Girls On The Run International.
By gosh, I think it just might be possible. One girl and one household at a time.
- by Robyn M. Perrin, co-founder of Focal Flame Photography
Focal Flame Photography is honored to serve as the official event photographer for Girls On The Run Dane County, which provides free FocalShare™ digital images to all participants in the Spring and Fall 5K events.