Seventeen 8 to 11-year-old girls gathered in the OES gymnasium Tuesday afternoon to start the spring season of Girls on the Run (GOTR), a 24-lesson, 12-week program offered by the YMCA.GOTR is a national experiential learning program with the perceived goal of the completion of a non-competitive 5k walk/run. Girls who participate in the program not only become runners, but also learn about good health, friendship, positive body image and self-esteem.

The first lesson, lead by trained coach Danielle Salada of the Octorara YMCA, was molded around the theme of "getting to know each other." They learned each other's names by standing in a circle and acting like an animal with a name that had a corresponding first initial to that of their first names.

For example, Gracie chose a gorilla. Once she introduced herself and pounded her chest like a gorilla, the girl standing next to her took her turn, having to act out her animal, then that of every girl before her. Rachel probably learned the most names as she had the last spot in the circle and had to go through all 18 names and animals.

Several of the girls showed resistance when they learned they had to act out the animal, probably fearing they would look silly in front of their peers, but by the time the activity started, everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves.

The program was designed to help young girls before they encounter what Molly Baker, the founder of GOTR, calls the "girl box" - that place where society, peers, even parents inadvertently direct so many girls, a place where they think they are judged on a superficial level only.

The curriculum empowers girls with a greater sense of self awareness, a sense of achievement and a foundation in team building as well as a commitment to enhancing their communities, all of which help them become strong, contented, and self-confident women.

Each lesson includes a "getting on board" exercise, a warm-up activity, a stretch routine with question and answer time, a work-out with a team goal, a cool-down and stretch with additional question and answer time, and a closing cheer or words of encouragement.

Maryann Mann led the stretching portion for the day. She read about the program in the newspaper and decided that she wanted to be involved; she will be helping to run the curriculum along with Salada this season.

The warm-up exercise on the first day was a "Getting to Know You Relay". The girls, split into two groups and were each given a piece of paper with categories. They had to find someone on their team to match up with each category, for example, someone with green eyes, someone who loves the beach, or someone who's parents are divorced. Once each girl on the team got an answer to one question, the girls, as a team, were to run to the other side of the gym and work on filling another category. "It's about doing it as a team, not about who's the fastest," Salada said.

Delayna, one of the returning veterans from last year, said that is pretty much the theme of the season. "You learn to run at your own speed," she said. "Ms. Salad (as the girls call Danielle Salada) teaches us that it's not a competition; she's the best teacher ever!"

Madison, another of the returning girls, said if she had to write a good/bad list for her coach, the bad list would be empty and the good list would be very long. Alexis, a third returning participant, said, "Girls on the Run means so much to me and my health." She said she returned this season because she enjoyed all of the games they did during the fall and everything she learned." I felt happy because you encouraged me the whole way through the practices and the race!" she told Salada after last season. "You made me encourage my self each week we ran and practiced. Thank you Danielle for coaching our team!"

Madison said before she participated in the program last year she thought it was just going to be about running, but now she said it's "just about having fun with no real pressure, and the best part is meeting new friends."

Delayna added that when she's with a group it's easier to meet new people than when she's alone. Aside from meeting a bunch of new friends, Delayna said GOTR has made her better at basketball.

Since 1996, the Girls on the Run program has helped thousands of girls gain a strong sense of self as they enter adolescence with its focus on positive, emotional, social, mental and physical development. They start out with shorter exercises like the relay and eventually work out to the track where they will never run less than a mile during each lesson. Salada said she always has them participate in a game or thinking activity while they are running. "I find that if they're thinking about something else," she said, "they're not realizing how far they're running."

The 12-week program will conclude with all participants walking or running in the Kennett Run, a 5k (3.1 mile) event on May 17. Salada said about 300 girls from the GOTR program participate in this huge event every year. Each of the girls is required to have a running buddy; most choose to run with a parent.

"Girls on the Run for me was challenging because I never was much of a runner," said Hope, who completed the fall session last year, "but I improved from being able to run three laps around the track to about 12 laps, while having lots of fun."

For more information on the Girls on the Run program call (610) 593-9622 ext 443 or dsalada@ymcabwv.org.

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