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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Members of the local chapter of Girls on the Run dash across a field during a workout and self-esteem-building session.

Feeling great inside, out

Running group aims to boost girls’ self-esteem, health

Girls on the Run coach Kristina Ledo, center, listens as she has each of the girls in her group say positive things about themselves at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School.

They came dressed in T-shirts and running shorts. Some wore hot pink sneakers and others ponytails spiked with glittery pastel ribbons.

On a sparkling, blue-sky day in early September, they were ready to run.

And run they did, at least four laps around a grassy field behind St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School, in an energetic demonstration of “girl power,” as one of their coaches put it.

“It’s so fun,” says participant Courtney Krohn, 9, a St. Charles third-grader from Fort Wayne, after the 75-minute session. “We get to encourage other people and just feel great about ourselves when we run.”

That, in a nutshell, is the aim of Girls on the Run, a national program to encourage girls in confidence, self-esteem and physical fitness through running.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based nonprofit group is in its first year with a chapter in Fort Wayne.

Led by women who are fitness runners themselves, Girls on the Run uses the discipline and fun of running to teach positive life lessons. Among them locally are that girls as young as 8 or 9 can set a goal and accomplish it – namely, train for and run a 5K, or 3.1-mile, fitness race in 10 weeks.

“My little speech about Girls on the Run is that it’s kind of a Girl Scout program with a running emphasis,” says Gail Gerber of Fort Wayne, one of four female founders of the local chapter.

“The focal point is not to be competitive. It’s not that at all,” she says. “It’s basically to love yourself from the inside out, to be healthy and confident and a friend to other girls, and to stand up for what you believe in and have gratitude. I love that.”

Hillary Knipstein of Fort Wayne, an attorney on maternity leave who is a group founder and its volunteer interim director, says the local chapter formed late last year.

It had its first sessions in the spring, when about a dozen girls trained at St. Charles and ran the local Frontier Run ’n Fun 5K in May.

This fall, there are three training sites – in Fort Wayne at St. Charles, where sessions are on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m., and at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School, where a group meets 2:45 to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays.

Girls also train at New Haven Intermediate School from 3:45 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Participants – about 80 in all – will run the River City Rat Race, each with an adult running buddy, on Oct. 27.

“It’s a pretty exciting thing for Fort Wayne. We’ve grown like 400 percent,” says Gerber, a local fitness instructor at Spiece Fitness.

Knipstein, 30, says local organizers aim in part to combat the problem of childhood obesity and inactivity with the program.

“We’re trying to show the girls it’s important to establish healthy habits that will last a lifetime,” she says.

Kristina Ledo of Fort Wayne, a teacher’s aide and coach for the St. Charles group, says girls also need to hear the program’s positive messages to counter what they are exposed to from peers and, sometimes, the media.

At the recent training session, girls were asked to say something negative they had heard someone say about them or someone else. Then they said something positive and compared their feelings.

They even came up with a funny way to deflect negativity if they heard it – shouting “Veto! Veto!” in an annoying voice.

And, each time a girl completed a lap, Ledo and helper Becky Fleps of Fort Wayne handed her a popsicle stick with a positive message written on it – including “I am a good friend,” “I am healthy” and “I am smart.”

For some girls, the group is cementing mother-daughter bonds. “I like it because I like running and my mom runs. She’s teaching me more how to run,” says Karley O’Leary, 8, of Fort Wayne.

Gerber recalls that in the spring, one of the girls’ moms felt she couldn’t finish the race and asked Gerber to run her daughter to the finish. Gerber did, and then the girl turned around and ran back to her mother and held her hand as they both crossed the finish line.

“It still gives me goose bumps to this day,” Gerber says. “The camaraderie that develops is pretty neat.”

Knipstein says the local chapter now works only with girls in grades 3 to 5. But it would like to expand to include older girls – the national nonprofit, she says, has another curriculum for middle-schoolers.

Organizers also would like the program to be available in every area school district and are discussing sponsoring a race someday, Ledo says.

Girls on the Run enrolls girls of any fitness level. The program costs from $25 to $110, depending on family income, a fee that includes the race entry, a water bottle, T-shirt, snacks at each session and program materials.

The group currently is not enrolling girls, but it is seeking volunteers as coaches and helpers, running buddies and Sole Mates.

The latter would run other races, including the Fort4Fitness half-marathon or 4-miler Sept. 28, to benefit the local chapter.

Girls in the program also will be part of a cheer block to encourage Fort4Fitness runners.

Running buddies and Soul Mates can be of either gender, organizers say. Volunteers who work directly with girls undergo background checks, unless they are related to or otherwise affiliated with participants, organizers say.

Knipstein says girls often don’t realize how active they are becoming during sessions because the increase in intensity is gradual and exercise is incorporated into game-like activities. Each session includes between 15 and 40 minutes of walking and running.

“A lot of people overestimate what it takes to do a 5K,” she says. But in the spring, when participants ran one and finished, “They were pretty tickled, to tell the truth.

“It was pretty neat to see them finish.”