At just past 4 on an October afternoon, a dozen girls began to run.
They were told to circle a piece of Danville’s Sycamore Valley Park. But unlike track practice, where the task might be paired with fierce faces and intense competition, the girls — who all ranged between 10 and 11 years old — ran their laps with a different attitude.
“When you run, you feel good,” said Milena Molerovich, an 11-year-old from Alamo. “But when you share that gift with other people, that’s even better.”
Graci Bueter ended her jog smiling, greeted by cheers and a ringing cowbell that announced her finish. Abby Ruszkowski and Olivia Grima ran in fits of giggles, jogging at an easy pace. And 10-year-old Jackie Ramirez — who at first struggled to finish her lap — was quickly joined by Milena, who stopped her own run to help Jackie slide back into her shoes.
“I always wanted a big sister, but I got a big brother,” said Milena. “Now, it feels like I have a bunch of little sisters. That’s a joy.”
The girls are just a few of the 726 currently enrolled in Girls on the Run in the Bay Area, an afterschool program that teaches girls to run and grow their emotional intelligence in the years that matter most: elementary and middle school. Studies show that girls’ self-confidence peaks at age 9 — and through its twice-weekly model, Girls on the Run is hoping to extend that.
“It’s so important for girls to realize that they are so much more than comparing themselves to others, worrying about what other people think of them, and being scared of being the unique person they are,” said 17-year-old Graciela Kerr, one of two junior coaches (and three senior coaches) who coordinate the program at Sycamore Valley Park.
Though the program costs $285 per season, more than 70% of participating girls have their fees buoyed by financial aid, which Girls on the Run provides on a sliding scale.
The organization hopes to raise $5,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights organizations that provides help and opportunities to East Bay residents. The funds will provide financial support for low-income girls and training and supplies for six coaches. The money will also be spent on running shoes for those who need a pair.
This fall, Kerr — who is a student athlete at San Ramon Valley High — joined nearly 200 volunteers to coach girls in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties. Kerr is a junior coach, a role reserved for teens who pair up with older coaches, like Jess Carey, to provide a multi-generational support system for the girls on each team.
Over 10 weeks, Carey, Kerr and the other coaches work on two dimensions. On one hand, they help girls build their confidence, emotional intelligence, and empathy through group discussions and games. And on the other, they run — working toward a shared, non-competitive goal of running a 5K at the end of the season.
“There is a secret sauce to Girls on the Run that I have not encountered anywhere else in my life,” said Carey. “This is about proving to yourself that you can move forward, and you can do a hard thing. And you can do that hard thing in the way that you want to do it.”
One of those hard things is the running, explained Carey. But the other comes from a more personal level. At the beginning of every season, she asks girls from sixth to eighth grade to brag about their favorite body part.
For those of any age, such a question can be difficult to answer — and for middle school girls, it can be even more so. At first, Carey said, the girls barely say a word. But with a little coaxing, the answers started coming out.
“My ears,” one girl said, “because I can hang things from them.” “My legs,” said another. “Because they’re strong.”
“You could just see how over time, answering that question became normalized,” said Carey. “We were able to identify negative self-talk patterns and translate them into the positive.”
For many former runners, like Alameda native Kristen Wong, those life lessons stuck.
Wong is now a student at the University of Texas at Austin. She started participating in Girls on the Run in third grade, and almost immediately, Wong said, she was hooked. Until fifth grade, she spent her afternoons being coached by Carey. She learned how to set goals, be kind to herself, and develop self-confidence, all while continuing to stay healthy.
But Girls on the Run hadn’t yet created their program for older girls, so when Wong was in middle school she and a group of girls asked Carey if the coach could lead an informal running club. Every weekend, they kept up the pace, and as soon as she was old enough, Wong began coaching girls herself.
Now, Wong is studying human development in Texas, a major she said was inspired by her experiences at Girls on the Run.
“I became really interested in how we shape ourselves as young kids, or young adults, and how opportunities and support groups, like GOTR, transform into healthy living.” she said. “I’m really in it for life at this point.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Girls on the Run provide financial aid and support for at least 25 low-income girls in Alameda and Contra Costa counties and pay for the training and supplies for six coaches in the region. Goal: $5,000