Grace Fincham is in fourth grade, and she loves to run.
Specifically, the 10-year-old, who attends Lincoln Elementary School in Iowa City, loves to run with her teammates and coaches at Girls on the Run.
The program, which is marking 10 years in Eastern Iowa this year, combines life skills curriculum with running and serves about 500 girls a season in Linn, Johnson, Benton, Buchanan, Iowa and Jefferson counties.
For Grace, that means embracing things like her “star power.”
“One, you get exercise in, and two, it’s kind of just letting your emotions out when you run,” she said. “And the lessons, I think they’re really fun. Sometimes they talk about your star power. Some days, you’re having good days, and that’s your star power. Then when you’re having a bad day, that’s a cloud covering your star power.”
The girls learn how to not only identify those clouds but how to work through them and how to recognize and celebrate their “star power.” Lessons cover everything from relationships to self esteem to making a positive impact on the world. The curriculum is woven in with running through 20 sessions over ten weeks. At the end of the season, all the girls in the Eastern Iowa group meet to run a 5K. There is a spring and fall season each year, with girls in third through eighth grade participating.
“It’s really fun, and you get to run, and also you get to learn about becoming a better friend, and about being nice to other people and the steps to get there,” Grace said.
Girls on the Run Eastern Iowa is part of Girls on the Run International, which started with 13 girls in North Carolina in 1996 and has since expanded to serve girls across the United States and Canada. The local program still is growing, with volunteer coaches working with teams at their schools.
“We want to bring in more Title 1 schools and make the program more accessible to all girls. We’re also reaching out to more rural schools, more remote sites,” said Esther Baker, executive director of Girls on the Run of Eastern Iowa.
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Similar programs exist for boys, like “Let Me Run,” which launched in Cedar Rapids this year. Baker said it is important for girls to have a space of their own.
“Research that has been conducted shows positive results for girls-only programs. Historically, girls have had limited access. Even with an increase in activities they can access, girls receive lower levels of social support for these kinds of activities. And the learning climate in some of these kinds of activities don’t necessarily support learning for girls,” she said.
The program also hopes to motivate girls to be active. Girls of all physical abilities are welcome, Baker said.
“Some of them might walk across the finish line at the 5K, some of them might wheel across the finish line of the 5K,” she said. “As long as they can set the goal of finishing the 5K. We want to instill in them an appreciation of physical activity that they can carry with them throughout the rest of their lives.”
She said the program aims to address “the whole girl.”
“Their physical well-being, their emotional well-being, their interpersonal well-being,” she said. “We want to teach them to trust in themselves and empower themselves, to prepare them for the life they’re going to lead as high school girls, as girls in college, as adults in the world.”
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