Positively Influential

From Local Sources

GirlsOnTheRunThere were raindrops the size of ping-pong balls falling with such force that they created a haze. Puddles pooled at everyone’s feet. Shirts stuck to whatever skin came close.

It was the kind of day that would deflate even the most dedicated of runners. If ever there were a day to let outside forces win, this was it. Sneak in a quick 3 miles today? Nah, it’s nasty out there.

But on this damp, dark, cool April morning, only a few people at the finish line darted for cover, and the folks on the track — even those who had not yet entered the oval for the final lap — just kept on running. If ever there were a day to display Girls on the Run spirit, this was perfect. Get those 3 miles done today? It might rain. Who cares? Let’s make it happen!

In Girls on the Run, you make the most of everything. You accept. You appreciate. You welcome. You encourage. You include. You adjust. You learn. You work. You celebrate. You smile. The national program is in its second year in Dubois County and has already more than doubled in size. Last Saturday was the grand finale, a 3.1-mile run on the heels of a three-month curriculum in which third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls met twice a week to blend fitness with self-confidence and self-discovery. It’s a program that can change a girl (and those around) her for the better.

I got your proof right here.

My 9-year-old daughter was a Girls on the Run participant not because she was in desperate need of physical exertion, extracurricular activities or friends; she plays a variety of sports, belongs to Girl Scouts and 4-H and keeps a long list of close pals. But she isn’t always upbeat, isn’t always certain she can accomplish goals, isn’t always comfortable being herself because that’s just human nature, especially when you’re a grade-school girl rolling toward adolescence and the sometimes dreadful challenges that come with it.

I know Whitney is not the only third-grader like that.

As a father of three daughters and husband to a busy mother, I am often guilty of overlooking the silver lining. I preach to my kids to smile, carry on, get over it and look on the bright side, without doing the same myself.

I suspect I am not the only parent like that.

So when Whitney and I ran last Saturday — each girl picked a running buddy to accompany her — we did everything Girls on the Run wants without even trying.

She supported peers, raising her arm for a high-five or blurting the names of girls I didn’t know she knew. C’mon CC! Dad, there’s Jasmine! Good job, Mickinzie!

People in the other lane or along the curb reciprocated the encouragement what seemed like every 10 steps. How do all these people know you, Whit? Must be famous.

She pushed herself, stopping for six walk breaks but each time quickly picking out a nearby landmark to work as the new start line. Let’s go again at that big tree.

Her countdown to resume running — five, four, three, two, one — turned into our new saying — five, four, three, two, run!

If she stopped smiling, I didn’t see it.

Maybe you’re thinking this is all sappy exaggeration. When it comes to harboring contempt for over-the-top happiness, I’m near the front of the line. Used to be anyway. Girls on the Run helped fix that with what’s called a positive plug-in. It’s pretty simple: You can plug yourself into the negative outlook or the positive outlook. It’s I can or I can’t. I will or I won’t. I do or I don’t. If life is what you make it, Girls on the Run is designed to get folks feeling good. It’s a reference we’ve made customary in our home. I told Whitney about 2 miles into Saturday’s run that her plug-in was so positive it was creating sparks. Just don’t let your shoes catch on fire, Whit. One more mile to go.

Everybody got a medal at the end of the 5K, but the idea of Girls on the Run is not to flood children with a sense of entitlement. Rather, it’s to provide both a launching pad and a safe place to land.

“These girls are old enough to understand bigger concepts but they still love to laugh and have fun and be who they are,” said Sarah Leonard, the council director for Girls on the Run Serving Dubois County. “We can show them that it’s OK to be you, it’s OK to be this joyful girl with this limitless potential that we know you are.

“Statistically, if they’re given enough confidence early, they’re less susceptible to peer pressure and issues that come up. They’re prepared. It works for any girl, woman, volunteer — anybody who hears the messages, they hold true. Why gossip is hurtful. Why positive self-image is good. What self-esteem can do for you. We’re trying to catch them before the girl box.”

The girl box opens most often in middle school because it’s in those grades — six through eight and beyond, really — where girls encounter social pressures.

“In middle school, people cared about what clothes you wore, how your hair looked, which shoes you had on,” said Charlotte Olson, a 23-year-old Jasper native who’s back home and coached a Girls on the Run team at Tenth Street School. “I was a cheerleader yet I didn’t feel like I fit in. I compared myself to others, had no sense of self-worth. I had a good family and community, but I wish I had this type of program, because there are a lot of negative words at that age.”

Leonard heard similar testimony a decade ago when she and her husband, Josh, a local cardiologist, were living in North Carolina. There, a speaker described the merits of Girls on the Run. The message stuck with her and, once she and Josh moved to Jasper, she vowed to someday get the program planted.

She had young children, so timing delayed the movement, but she linked with fellow University of Evansville graduate Audrey Werner at a UE alumni event a few years back and Werner said that if Leonard got things rolling, she’d help.

They built a committee of 15 women and waded through a lengthy application process that required letters of recommendation and proof of community support. Girls on the Run is more common in metropolitan areas — the closest groups are in Columbus and Louisville — but Leonard was confident it would work in Dubois County. The charter was accepted Feb. 28, 2014. The cost is $100 per girl to pay for healthy snacks, T-shirts, water bottles and fees for Girls on the Run’s corporate wing, but nobody has been turned away. Grants both this year and last have paid for running shoes for each participant. The rest of the funds have come from sponsorships and money generated from the children’s fun run the evening before the Heartland Half Marathon in Jasper each September.

“We’re so blessed to have such a strong community and it showed in our application,” Leonard said. “The international organization was changing how they accepted people but we really proved ourselves. We knew what it would take to get it up and running.”

The program runs February through April and in the first year consisted of 65 girls. This year, that number ballooned to 124 as groups met twice a week at Tenth Street and Holy Trinity schools in Jasper, Ireland Elementary and the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand for 90 minutes per session. There were after-school and evening gatherings led by a pool of 25 coaches who followed lessons laid out at Girls on the Run

The meetings focused in part on activities: Get from here to there as a group with each team member in contact with another teammate, except you can only use half of the team members’ legs; that ended with girls holding hands and ridding piggyback or hopping. There were energy awards at the end of each meeting to celebrate enthusiasm: Saturday, they closed down the 5K after-party with the “super, super girl power” motion that included flexing of muscles.

When the girls at Tenth Street gathered after school in the middle of April, they made cards for patients in hospitals and nursing homes as part of the community service project that is folded into the curriculum. The messages on the cards, dotted with stickers and colorful messages, were simple yet upbeat.

Stay cool. Get well. Feel better. You can do it. I care for you. Love is an open door. I will pray for you.

As the girls passed markers back and forth, coach Brandi Kay reminded them “don’t get hung up on being perfect. Have fun. Be creative.”

The message later when they convened outside for a 30-minute workout — their longest test to that point — was the same. Before they ran, coaches called on girls who offered a type of warmup exercise and shared the most important thing they learned from Girls on the Run.

Jocelynne Calderon: Be positive; jumping jacks.

Albany Steinhart: Be kind to others; run in place.

Haley Laymon: Stop, breathe, listen, respond; plank.

Kylie Lamkin: Don’t bully; lunges.

Haley Collins: Keep moving; toe touches.

Madison Padgett: Don’t stop; side plank.

Ask a girl what she didn’t like about Girls on the Run, and the answers don’t come as easy.

When a Holy Trinity team met April 20, girls booed the announcement from Werner that it would be their final session of the year. When Werner and fellow coach Abby Recker (that’s my wife and Whitney’s mother) handed them a sheet asking a variety of questions, most answered No. 3 — What did you not like about Girls on the Run? (Please be honest) — with the word “nothing.”

There is one thing Leonard and Werner would like to change.

As of now, the program is offered in only the Greater Jasper and Southeast Dubois school districts; Southeast was added this year with help from the Tri-County YMCA in Ferdinand and “these types of programs are exactly what we need in our communities,” Pine Ridge Elementary Principal Ryan Haas said.

The goal is to expand into Southwest Dubois and Northeast Dubois, though such growth will require more coaches and space for willing volunteers and administrators.

The girls give back what they receive. Those community service projects included a bake sale at Holy Family Church that netted more than $550 split between the Dubois County Humane Society and Riley Hospital for Children. There were also the cards, one of which was made by a girl named Jillian Troutman. She completed Saturday’s 5K three months after she wondered if she could handle Girls on the Run. She wasn’t big on running, but that’s where the name might cast a misleading image.

“We tell them you don’t have to be a runner,” Leonard said. “It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other. Run. Hop. Skip. Jump across finish line. Just crossing it and setting a goal and accomplishing the goal is the hope for the program. … Push yourself each day and see what you can accomplish.”

Troutman, a third-grader at Tenth Street, will be back next year.

“I felt proud today,” she said Saturday, her blue Girls on the Run T-shirt still damp from the rain.

She was not alone.

Haas, the principal at Pine Ridge, ran along with his daughter Grace and Grace’s cousin Savanna Haas. Savanna, a 2014 Forest Park graduate, is preparing for deployment to Afghanistan this summer with a National Guard unit based in Gary. Saturday offered another chance to bond.

Same for the Reckers. I have run thousands of miles, often driven by the clock or comforted by solitude. Saturday brought neither of those. Yet those were the best 3.1 miles I’ve ever run.

When Whitney and I crossed the finish line, her mother draped the medal over her neck and began to cry. Tears welled in my eyes, too.

We were not alone.

“When we looked at the forecast, we had coaches, parents, girls saying, ‘We’re going to do this Saturday, right?’” Werner said. “It’s just that can-do attitude like, ‘We want to do this no matter what’ that made us go ahead with it even in the pouring rain.

“I was laughing and crying at the same time.”