An innovative program to promote exercise, self-esteem and teamwork among Jefferson City girls is off and running — literally.
Heart of Missouri Girls on the Run Council Executive Director Cheryl Unterschutz and her board have worked since September 2016 to spread girl empowerment across the Missouri River into Jefferson City schools.
Starting this fall, girls at South Elementary in third through fifth grades will be able to enroll, launching the first Girls on the Run chapter in the Jefferson City School District.
Girls on the Run is a national nonprofit that inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a creative curriculum involving a little running.
"Our goal is to gain participation, expand the organization and increase the level of community support for the program," South Elementary Principal Angela Otiker said. "We are excited to be able to collaborate with the organization and take advantage of this Healthy Schools Healthy Communities initiative."
Through a grant funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health, HSHC works with four local elementary schools including South Elementary in programs that promote the overall health and wellness of the students.
During the program, the girls meet twice a week for 90 minutes over the course of 10 weeks and engage in lessons that build self-confidence, personal courage, peer connections, skill competence, and caring for oneself and the community. At the end of the 10 weeks, there will be a non-competitive 5K race in Columbia.
With six volunteer coaches from the school faculty on board to kick-start the program, the team initially will accommodate 12-18 girls. The enrollment capacity could expand if community members and parents volunteer to become coaches, said Sarah Kimble, GOTR instructional coach at South Elementary.
"Because teachers are serving as coaches, those opportunities to build additional relationships with the students will make our school community stronger," Otiker said.
Sabine Boudreau, former GOTR coach in the Kansas City area, said this will be a great opportunity for young girls in Jefferson City. She plans to serve as a volunteer coach for the local team.
"I've seen so many girls build confidence in themselves, learning that it's OK that they be just the way they are," Boudreau said. "For each girl, it's a different lesson; you can see when that light bulb just comes on. You just have to be there to get it."
Paula Johnson, a therapist at Envision Counseling, said hosting the program in a school provides an added benefit.
"The fact it will be in an individual school will be beneficial to participants and their parents because it breaks down transportation barriers," Johnson said. "It also allows the participants to get closer to other girls within the school, building friendships."
With bullying as an issue in schools, this program will ideally help strengthen those relationships, Johnson explained.
"As with any new program, it will start small, but we hope that it sends a powerful message to the youth and their parents so that it catches on at other schools," Kimble said.
She and Sarah Thompson, second-grade teacher at South Elementary, will lead the program.
Kimble said the GOTR program will impact their school community in three ways:
South Elementary parents can sign their children up for the GOTR program at Back-to-School night from 4-6 p.m. Tuesday, where representatives from the Heart of Missouri Girls on the Run Council will be at South Elementary to introduce families to the program. Through Sept. 5, the early bird registration fee for participants is $125, and on Sept. 6 it goes up to $150.
Full and partial scholarships are available based on a sliding scale, and applications can be completed at raceplanner.com/register/index/WXNBOUGPJ3NHL1L.
"The beauty of this is if the community comes together and starts sponsoring the girls in this program, it can eventually reach all schools and the kids," Johnson said.
Unterschutz said participants will have the opportunity to be fitted for new Asics running shoes to use during the program. Families without internet access to register and apply for scholarships can contact her at 573-246-0884.
"Not only will girls develop as individuals and as part of a team, but they will also learn the importance of having the proper equipment for physical activity and how physical activity can help keep one healthy both emotionally and physically," Unterschutz said.
For more information about Girls on the Run at South Elementary, contact Kimble at firstname.lastname@example.org or Thompson at email@example.com. For more info about the local Missouri chapter, visit heartofmissourigirlsontherun.org.