March 31, 2022 Community Stories
Girls on the Run Toward Social and Emotional Health
It was the biggest day of the year for the 550 girls participating in Girls on the Run Western Massachusetts. Each had completed a 10-week learning series through the organization, and it was time for the annual 5k event in November 2021.
They hailed from 55 schools across Western Massachusetts, and most of the girls — eight through 14 years of age — hadn’t done anything like it before.
Each brought a “running buddy” (usually a family member) to walk, skip, jog, or run beside them to complete the 5k. With parents, coaches and other energized volunteers on hand at Ashley Reservoir in Holyoke, the high-spirited crowd numbered about 3,000.
Girls on the Run Council Director Alison Berman thought she’d soaked in the last of the day’s joyful moments. She’d watched each girl cross the finish line after an hour or so of exertion, often delightedly holding the hand of their proud parent or guardian.
Then word came from a volunteer monitor that a girl and her “buddy” were still traversing the 5k course. Berman recalled what happened.
“She was a girl whose family had gone through some tough times. Her aunt was with her. It took her over two hours to finish the 5k, but she never gave up. And as they came around to the end, hardly anyone was left. But we were cheering and celebrating, and her aunt was in tears when they finished. She did it and it changed her life. And it changed her aunt’s life because her aunt had never done anything like that either.”
According to Berman, there are hundreds of stories like that thanks to Girls on the Run, a national, evidence-based curriculum. Highly trained volunteer coaches, often teachers who stay after school to run the program, are key to its success. All are vetted and trained through Girls on the Run.
“The social emotional life skills piece of the program is so strong,” Berman said. “The girls learn invaluable skills like how to stand up for yourself, choose your friends, identify and express emotions, resolve conflicts, express gratitude…and even lessons on inner and outer beauty.”
Each session combines physical activity. Teams of girls also complete one community impact project per season.
Bolstering the emotional health of young girls couldn’t come at a more critical time. Berman reported that self-confidence and physical activity typically dip when girls enter middle school, and COVID-19 has “profoundly” affected young people for the worse.
“There’s a mental health crisis among kids right now — huge upticks in anxiety and depression and more kids showing up in emergency rooms,” she said. “Especially for younger kids who lost two years of social emotional learning during COVID, we see more trauma reactions and difficulties figuring out disputes or conflicts.”
Girls on the Run, she said, “teaches girls a toolbox of new skills.” The impact spreads to their families and schools, too. Teachers report that some girls’ parents have become more involved at their schools, Berman said.
A 2018 grant from the Community Foundation helped Girls on the Run Western Massachusetts expand to Chicopee, Springfield, and Holyoke. This spring, across its 70 program sites, 990 girls have registered to take part.
With just two full-time paid staff and nearly half of participating girls in need of scholarships to offset the $160 program fee, growing more revenue streams is a priority for the nonprofit to add more sites in the region.
Filling the gap left by schools with little time to focus on a social emotional curriculum is crucial, Berman said. “Our teachers and coaches talk about girls bringing our lessons back into their classrooms. They’re becoming leaders in their schools and they’re standing up for their friends…We are giving girls a boost in valuable life skills at the ages when they really need it.”
This year, its 5k event will be held June 5 at Western New England University.