Paige Hodges laced up her running shoes, sprinted into the distance and left her negative thoughts in the dust.
As she smiled encouragingly at her friends also running on the Liberty Oaks Elementary School track, the 11-year-old exuded a carefree confidence beyond her years.
It’s a boost in self-esteem that is spreading among preteen girls on both sides of the state line, thanks to a nonprofit organization, Girls on the Run.
The Kansas City chapter has become a word-of-mouth sensation, with the number of participants skyrocketing over the 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 5-kilometer run. The organization also conducts Girls on Track, a similar program for middle school girls focused on eating disorders, Internet safety and relationships.
“It’s helped me on ways to work with my problems and have a much more positive attitude,” said Paige, proudly donning her Girls on the Run T-shirt. “I’ve made a lot of friends I can turn to when I’m feeling down. There’s always someone cheering me on from the sidelines.”
Her Liberty Oaks pals agree. Alexis Carver, 10, joined the program a couple years ago out of curiosity. Now it has become an important part of her life.
“It helps me clear my thoughts about the day,” she said. “I look forward to it every week.”
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 Debi Straws, who has two Liberty Oaks daughters in the program. As she watched them laugh and talk with each other on the track, she couldn’t wipe a smile off her face.
“I love the support they get from the coaches and the other girls,” Straws said. “They’re empowered by this program, which is truly a blessing. I wish Girls on the Run had been around when I was their age.”
Liberty Oaks has the largest Girls on the Run program in the Kansas City area. The school started its first team in 2011 with 15 girls. This fall it has three teams, 11 coaches and 57 girls.
Becky Moderow, Liberty Oaks’ lead coach, anticipates the number growing next year but acknowledges the school could use more adults as volunteer coaches. She hopes it happens.
“This is the best part of my day,” she said, gesturing to a crowd of cheering girls running alongside the school’s track. “I love this program, because it teaches girl power, which these kids don’t get in school. At this age, right before middle school, it is so important to boost their self-esteem.”
Moderow, who is also a kindergarten teacher, is not surprised by the organization’s growth. The more girls talk about it excitedly in the school hallways, the more other girls want to join, she said.
And the more schools want to join as well, pointed out Lisa Pickard, the executive director for Girls on the Run.
The Kansas City area chapter, based in Prairie Village, has 45 inquiries for new teams in the spring. Each team, held at a school, church or community center, contains around 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. Curriculum materials and $150 gift cards, for healthy snacks, are provided to each volunteer coach.
The organization provides scholarships to every girl who wants to participate. 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 to a substantial donation it received, 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.
Some schools are even willing to help out their students financially as well.
Over the summer, a few enthusiastic parents and teachers from Mill Creek Upper Elementary School in Belton brought the program on board. They went out into the community to raise money to provide scholarships for girls who couldn’t afford the fee. They raised $1,500.
“I was so excited to see a program like this one, because girls this age are in desperate need for this kind of interaction,” said Leah Kramer, a Mill Creek teacher. “For girls, it seems our whole self-image is based on what society wants us to be. The curriculum challenges them to be the boss of their own brain.”
Parents and teachers 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.
She pointed out that 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 will be held Nov. 16 on the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. Families, friends, and the public are welcome to participate and help 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.
But the organization can’t do it alone, she pointed out. After all, it takes a village.