Before this school year, Olivia Shively used to despise running.
If someone had told the 10-year-old from Overland Park that she would be running a 5K in a mere four months, her stomach probably would have hurt from laughing so hard.
But the fifth-grader discovered life can change for the better in the blink of an eye.
Not only has she run twice a week for four months and participated in her first 5K run last weekend, but Olivia has learned speed is not as important as direction.
A positive direction, that is.
As the Holy Spirit Catholic School fifth-grader has been running, she’s been learning to be a more confident and happier kid.
The boost in self-esteem and physical activity is spreading among preteen girls on both sides of the state line, thanks to the nonprofit organization Girls on the Run.
The Kansas City chapter — based in Prairie Village — has become a word-of-mouth sensation, with the number of participants skyrocketing over the past year.
Holy Spirit is just one of dozens of schools that signed up for the program this past year.
In 2007, a group of enthusiastic moms brought the national organization to Kansas City, with 25 girls and a handful of schools participating.
In the fall of 2012, Girls on the Run of Greater Kansas City had 677 girls. Last spring, the number jumped to 1,032.
Using fun activities, inspiring lessons and running, the initiative looks to form a bulwark against bullying while boosting self-esteem, respect and communication.
The 10-week program for third- through fifth-grade girls ends with a five-kilometer run. The organization also conducts Girls on Track, a similar program for middle school girls focused on eating disorders, Internet safety and relationships.
“I’ve made a lot of friends with girls I normally wouldn’t have said ‘hi’ to,” said Olivia Shively, who signed up for the program out of curiosity. “And I’ve really enjoyed the lessons because they help out in real life. There is a lot of bullying and gossiping around school and now we know how to handle it.”
Her coaches agree the program has been immensely beneficial for the 15 girls on the Holy Spirit team.
When Girls on the Run was brought to the school this year by a couple of excited parents, school nurse Julie Schropp volunteered to help out because it would allow her to practice what she preaches — eat smart and play hard.
“I wanted to encourage these girls, but I never imagined that they would actually be encouraging me every week,” Schropp said. “I see these girls differently now when I run into them in the hallways at school because I’ve been getting to know them a lot better over the past several weeks. I’m so impressed by their enthusiasm and perseverance. The program has really changed their lives.”
The enthusiastic feedback doesn’t surprise Jamie Klare, program coordinator for Girls on the Run. She said the girls’ transformation with Girls on the Run is why the program has enjoyed such a major expansion over the past year.
“We’re watching girls become healthier and more confident right before our eyes,” she said. “Parents and teachers are noticing that this program is actually making a difference, and they’re talking about it to everyone they know.”
One of those parents is Larry Naab of Overland Park.
On a cloudy, drizzling afternoon, he showed up during a Holy Spirit Girls on the Run practice 5K to cheer on his fourth-grade daughter, Eva, from the sidelines.
Waving small green pom-poms as she ran by, the devoted dad couldn’t wipe the grin off his face every time his daughter completed another lap.
“I like that Girls on the Run gives Eva the chance to set a goal and work hard to accomplish it,” he said. “My wife and I can tell it’s been a positive influence on her because she comes home and talks about all the fun she’s having. It’s a nice alternative to organized sports because it’s building her up as a person, rather than focusing on winning.”
The girls are having such a blast in the program, in fact, that word is quickly spreading in the hallways, said Kim Hudson, one of the coaches.
A lot of first- and second-grade girls have expressed their excitement at being in the program when they’re old enough, she said.
It’s a mentality that is spreading across the Kansas City metro area, as more and more schools are eager to join the program, said Lisa Pickard, executive director for Girls on the Run.
The Kansas City area chapter has had 45 inquiries for new teams next spring. Each team, held at a school, church or community center, has about 15 girls. Volunteer coaches are required to guide the teams through the curriculum.
Although the organization is ecstatic about the rapid growth, it doesn’t come without complications.
“Growing quickly in a short period of time is a little daunting, but we’re taking it one day at a time,” said Pickard. “One of our biggest challenges right now is funding. We don’t want to turn any girl away, but that takes money.”
The program costs roughly $135 for each girl. The fees allow the organization to provide curriculum materials and $150 gift cards for healthy snacks to each volunteer coach.
The organization provides scholarships to every girl who wants to participate but cannot afford it. No girl is turned away if she wants to join. To do that, however, the organization relies on community sponsors to donate scholarship money, Pickard said.
The organization also donates running shoes on an as-needed basis. This year, thanks in part to a $3,000 donation from Academy Sports + Outdoors in Overland Park, Girls on the Run of Greater Kansas City was able to donate running shoes to all of its 15 inner-city sites.
“A lot of the girls cried when they received their shoes, things a lot of kids take for granted,” Pickard said.
This year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City has fully financed several Girls on the Run teams in the metro area, such as Santa Fe Trail Elementary School in Overland Park.
The gesture has been a lifesaver for many of the parents.
“It helps out a lot because without the funding, we couldn’t do it,” said Santa Fe Trail mom Theresa Clark of Overland Park.
Her daughter, Calyn, adores the lessons, games and activities. She looks forward to the after-school program every week.
“We get to run around and goof around and be ourselves,” said the 11-year-old. “I’ve been around all these girls so long, they feel like my sisters. We cheer each other on, no matter who it is and we just have fun.”
While the girls see it mostly as a good time, their coaches realize just how important the program can be.
After all, it’s preparing them for adolescence, said Brittany Hunter, one of the Santa Fe Trail team coaches.
“With pop stars and supermodels all over the media, it’s hard for girls to find where they belong in society,” Hunter said. “This program teaches them how to build confidence, develop healthy relationships, and appreciate who they are.”
The growth in each girl before and after the program is incredible to witness, Hunter added, even if the girls don’t recognize it themselves.
“They’re blossoming into more positive people,” she said. “It’s inspiring.”
Each Girls on the Run session begins with a lesson.
Huddled in a small circle on the Santa Fe Trail gym floor, more than a dozen little girls leaned forward with bright eyes, intensely discussing the subject of bullying.
Some of the girls said they had witnessed bullying in school. Others said they had been teased before. All of them agreed it was a problem that needed to stop.
By the time the girls ran outside to the track, they were delighted to see the dark clouds had cleared and the sun was beaming down from a bright blue sky.
“Looks like the weather got perfect just in time,” one of the coaches called out to the girls, with a wink.
As they took off running, the kids smiled encouragingly at each other on the track as their coaches cheered from the sidelines.
It’s a positivity that radiates from every Girls on the Run meet-up, no matter what school.
Over at Holy Spirit in Overland Park, the coaches also start out each session with a serious subject.
But with the 5K looming near, they recently decided to give the girls a practice run, instead of the usual lesson that same week.
To get the girls psyched up for the practice 5K, the coaches blasted the students’ favorite girl-power anthems, such as Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.” Laughing, the girls danced around a school hallway for several minutes before sprinting outside to master the track.
As she stood on the sidelines of the track, Schropp shook colorful pom-poms in the air as each girl completed another lap.
On that drizzling afternoon, many of the kids preferred to run in small groups, keeping each other company in silence or with light conversation. More importantly, she added, girls who barely knew each other before Girls on the Run ran together. Friendships have emerged among the most unlikeliest candidates, Schropp said, with a smile. She found it special to witness.
As the girls ran, some finished faster than others and they walked off to the sidelines to guzzle a bottle of water and wave excitedly at their friends still running. They didn’t cheer each other on for speed. They cheered each other on for achievement. From first to last, every girl was treated like a rock star.
Parents, teachers and coaches are not the only ones noticing the program’s success. It has captured the attention of professionals working in the child development field at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“A lot of people don’t realize that emotional, physical and mental health can all go hand in hand,” said Ann Davis, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Center for Children’s Healthy Lifestyles Nutrition. “Programs like Girls on the Run highlight that interplay, which is great. They help on so many levels.”
She says Girls on the Run helps to address obesity, which is quickly becoming a problem among teenagers. After all, she said, when girls reach their teenage years, their physical fitness tends to decrease, and that’s when they start to gain weight and have problems losing it.
Elementary school is an ideal time for girls to find physical activities that will engage them for the rest of their life.
“When you shut off the television and video games, most children don’t have a problem engaging in physical activities,” Davis said, “but it’s mostly activities that won’t carry on into their adult years.”
For example, she pointed out, a lot of girls play soccer or basketball, but only a fraction stick with those sports as teenagers or beyond.
“Girls on the Run is great for that reason, because it promotes a physical activity people can do at any age, no matter where they wind up,” Davis said. “You can be a runner anywhere, whether you’re in college or in the Peace Corps. It’s easy to do, and you don’t need equipment.”
Davis, who is also a child psychologist, said programs like Girls on the Run help girls develop emotionally and mentally. A segment of younger and younger girls are facing self-esteem issues relating to body image, bullying and lack of confidence, she added.
“Some of these issues faced by girls in elementary schools today are the same ones I faced in junior high, which is amazing,” Davis said. “They’re not as well-equipped to handle these issues, because they don’t have the maturity level yet. Programs like Girls on the Run can help prepare them better.”
She also enjoys that Girls on the Run brings kids together as a team, working toward the same goal. And for most girls, that goal is making it to the 5K run at the end of the program.
This year it was held Nov. 16 at the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. Families, friends, and other supporters braved the chilly morning to cheer the girls on.
And each year, the run gets more exciting as more girls participate, Pickard said. She hopes it continues. Her goal is for Girls on the Run of Greater Kansas City to have 150 sites by spring.
And for many of the girls, the goal is to keep on running.
Just ask Olivia.
For a kid who hated running a little more than four months ago, she nailed her first 5K on Saturday morning, completing the entire race with her friends in 28 minutes.
“I’m really proud of myself and it feels good to have accomplished something so important,” she said. “It was fun, even though it was windy.”
The fifth-grader won’t be able to participate in Girls on the Run next year, since she’ll be in sixth grade, which is the cut-off limit at Holy Spirit. But she hopes to at least help out with the program next year when her sister, Lucy, joins it as a third-grader.
“I’m looking forward to cheering on my little sister next year,” Olivia said. “I’m excited for Lucy because I think she’s really going to like it a lot. She likes being active.”