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‘Girls on the Run’ Gets Chicago Kids Moving In The Right Direction

“I’m trying to lose weight,” says a nine-year-old girl named Gabrielle.

I stop writing in my notebook and look at this girl—this girl who says such a thing without thinking. She is not too heavy. She does not appear to be unhealthy. But this is what she’s said. I look at her and the girl next to her. I look at the girl sitting on the floor behind them.

When I was nine I didn’t think about running. I thought about food. When I was thirteen I thought about food twice as often. At seventeen I weighed 293 pounds. I wouldn’t find running until I was twenty-one. I wouldn’t come to love it until twenty-five. And some days I don’t love it at all. Those days happen, but they always pass.

But these girls dressed in gym clothes and running shoes are not here to lose weight.

“That’s not our main goal,” says Laura Houghton, 26, who teaches and coaches the girls at the Chicago Virtual Charter School in the West Loop. “Our goal is to be healthy. ”

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Usually, there are fifteen girls at practice. But on this cold and gloomy Tuesday, there are only four. There were three last week, the result of a combination of bad weather and spring break. But the four girls who are here want to run. They are here as part of Girls on the Run, a non-profit program that encourages girls to run and at the same time teaches them the importance of self-esteem, kindness, and health. The girls are taught that feeling good about themselves—like getting out the door to jog on a cold winter day—is a choice they get to make for themselves.

“Can we go outside? We want to run!” yells Mikayla, nine.

It’s not even forty degrees, but out they go. They wear bright pink and purple pants, blue socks, and puffy pink coats. They grab their green water bottles and walk fifteen feet ahead of their coach.

They seem happy. They talk to each other and their coach without being interrupted. No one shushes them. No one stops them. No one times them. There is giggling and high-fives. They earn “Superstar Energy Awards” for doing kind things for themselves and each other.

“I love running. It’s my peace of mind,” says Houghton.

I love running, too. I love it at six in the morning at the gym with Dog the Bounty Hunter and MSNBC and bad shows on Bravo because they keep me going. I love it at nine at night when the world is dark and the only sounds I hear are my breath and my feet against the pavement. I love that it’s part of what’s helped me lose more than 80 pounds and keep it off for three years. I love that it’s saving my life. I love that I miss it when it’s been too long. I love that I crave running when all I used to crave was salt and sugar. I love that I’ve trained my brain to want different things. I love that all of us, age nine or twenty eight, are capable of this.

I don’t tell the girls any of this. I only watch and listen.

“It was hard in the beginning. I had to pace myself. I had to take my time. It’s not a race,” says Kyndra, nine.

“I’m learning that I can do anything. It’s fun to me,” says Gabrielle, also nine.

I’m still trying to find the peace these girls have. They have this peace because there’s less junk and noise in their heads. I hope they’re listening to their coaches when they’re told, Ýou’re smart and strong and learning important things here. When they’re 13 I hope they remember how they feel sitting in this room. I hope they still feel it when they’re 16 and 30 and 60. Things, life, all of it, is going to be hard, harder than they can even anticipate, but they’re here now. And they don’t even realize how strong they’re becoming.

“Running gave me a peace and confidence that allowed me to complete three marathons.” explains Kris Smart, 42, Executive Director of Girls on the Run Chicago.

Girls on the Run was started in 1996 by Molly Barker of North Carolina. In 2000, the program became a 501c3 non-profit organization, and today it operates in more than 200 cities. Girls on the Run-Chicago has served more than 27,000 girls, ages eight to 13.

Locally, the organization has 1,300 volunteer coaches. “They represent the girls we serve. We all have a responsibility to the community in which we live,” says Smart.

Having an eight year-old daughter was even more motivation to get involved with an organization like this one, Smart says, to give girls her daughter’s age opportunities to learn how to take care of themselves. “Boys and girls are not the same,” she says. “Girls learn from each other and from the messages society sends them. Girls have a lot more thinking to do with issues.”

The girls agree that the program works better because it’s geared only to them. “I like coming here because I get to enjoy other girls,” says Gabrielle. “There are no boy things to talk about unless we want to.”

And generally speaking, the girls don’t want to. The topic of boys doesn’t come up as I watch them. Getting outside comes up, the foods Gabrielle’s aunt makes (fish) comes up. The phrase “we get to be silly here and it’s okay” comes up. Twice.

Each girl is working toward the organization’s spring 5K, which is scheduled to take place June 1 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview. Last year, more than 6,000 girls participated in the run.

“The 5K is so cool for them,” says Houghton. “These girls get to see that they’re part of a much bigger family.”

My shoes and socks are next to my bed. Sometimes I sleep in my running clothes. I love running even on the days I don’t. I’m evolving. I’m part of the family, too.

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STORY ART: Photos by Rhiannon Falzone

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