If you spot a large group of girls, approximately ages 8-15, excited, smiling and maybe even screaming as they’re running through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama it could be that Justin Bieber is in town. But it’s more likely that you’ve stumbled upon a Girls on the Run (GOTR) event. The Birmingham chapter of the international non-profit character-building organization holds two events each year and currently has over 160 young girls involved.
GOTR’s mission is to “inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.” It offers training for 5k races, the race itself and healthy living education, yet GOTR is about far more than exercise. The program uses running to teach girls some important life lessons like loving their bodies, recognizing their gifts, being themselves and more. And they’ll take these valuable lessons – and the confidence they provide – with them as they hit the tumultuous teenage years.
Mary Virginia Mandell, Program Director for GOTR, started working with the organization last summer and explained what drew her to GOTR. “I worked with a group that focused on preventing teen pregnancy, and I realized in that job that when girls have high self-esteem and have goals and dreams for their futures, they are far less likely to be involved in any risk-taking behavior,” she said. “With GOTR, I get to work on that issue from the front end and help give girls the confidence they need early.”
Mary Virginia’s own 9-year-old daughter is involved and loves it. “She’s having so much fun,” she said. But GOTR knows no boundaries. It is open to all girls, regardless of their background, their neighborhood or any other factor. GOTR’s Birmingham chapter recently expanded to include Bessemer and Trussville. For both a fall and spring session, participating girls are divided into teams and then meet for training and classes twice a week for 12 weeks. “All the coaches and teams follow a curriculum that includes a warm up and workout along with lessons on topics like giving back, anti-bullying, how to be a good friend, finding positive energy and more,” Mary Virginia said.
They play games to make the physical part fun. “Like maybe every time you run a lap, you get one fingernail painted in this
crazy glitter polish,” she said. Each meeting ends with one or two girls receiving the “energy award.” “It may not be the fastest girl; it may the girl who improve them most,” Mary Virginia said.
And no girl is ever pushed to go beyond her limits. “They never have to run,” Mary Virginia said. “We just ask that they keep moving forward and give it their all. If they need to walk their laps, that’s fine.”
All the training builds up to a 5k race, and every team runs decked out in costumes that go with a theme they chose at the beginning of the session. “You’ll see teams in all tie-dye, in tutus, in sequined cat masks, and there is always plenty of pink!” Mary Virginia said. “It is very loud and very fun.”