Girls on the Run teaches more than just running at Riverwest Elementary
By Melanie Lawder
The day is gloomy and cold.
On this May afternoon at Riverwest Elementary, it doesn’t feel particularly spring-like. Rather, winter’s grasp on the day’s temperatures still feels very firm. Clouds envelop the sky, casting a grey ambiance over the day’s activities, and in a shudder-inducing fashion, a stop-and-go wind sends chills down the spine.
The type of weather that makes you want to stay inside, wrapped up in blankets with a hot beverage in hand.
But the less-than-ideal weather doesn’t seem to bother the approximately 15 elementary-school-aged girls, who are running laps around their school’s block. Their disposition is sunny, in stark contrast to the conditions they are running in.
On this afternoon, the girls brace the cold, circling their school at a brisk tempo – and with a cheery attitude. And while it may not be obvious to a casual onlooker, the girls are learning a lot more than proper running form and how to pace a mile.
They are learning about endurance, empowerment, confidence and other important skills.
This group of jogging girls is part of the Riverwest Elementary chapter of the national nonprofit Girls on the Run, which aims to empower pre-teen girls through a curriculum that melds physical activity with important life lessons.
“A lot of people think we’re just a running program – and we’re just so much more than that,” said Tina Jones, executive director of Girls on the Run of Southeastern Wisconsin.
The several-month-long program culminates with a celebratory 5K event. In the weeks leading up to that goal, the girls learn about physical fitness and are exposed to important lessons that reinforce their self-worth and help them build their confidence.
“They get a feeling of accomplishment and a belief in themselves when they cross that finish line that nobody can ever take away from them,” Jones said. “…The girls are understanding what it means to build endurance, hard work, sweat. They see, as they practice each time, that they are feeling better and stronger.”
Twice a week, the girls at Riverwest Elementary meet for an after-school practice, which typically includes a lesson, warm-up, a running exercise and a healthy snack, said Jyl Ellmaker, one of the head coaches. These different elements of the practice often all tie back to the theme of the day’s lesson, which can cover topics like conflict resolution, peer pressure, bullying, body image and self esteem. (For instance, a recent running exercise entailed the girls pausing between laps to think about a quality they like to find in a friend, Ellmaker said. They would then jot that trait down on a writing board before setting off on their next lap.)
“It’s really helping them be the healthiest girl — mind, body and spirit,” said Ellmaker, who’s also a social worker at the school.
Creating an atmosphere of support is key to helping nurture each girl’s development, said Ellmaker. The group sets ground rules of confidentiality and has developed a culture of respect so every individual feels they can express themselves, Ellmaker explained.
“It’s a judgment-free zone,” said Jones. “It’s a space safe where they can grow as individuals and get the support of other females.”
Young students like Lyrique, a Riverwest Elementary fifth-grader, are the beneficiaries of this encouraging environment. Before Girls on the Run, Lyrique said she was shy, with low self-esteem. Now, she is “super social,” as she describes it, and has seen her confidence skyrocket thanks to participation in the group.
“Girls on the Run is really empowering,” she said.
One of Lyrique’s favorite parts of the program is its reflection period. At the end of every practice, the girls congregate in a group to discuss the day’s work and compliment others. One of the girls in the group once commended Lyrique for her persistence in helping her get through the practice successfully, despite her struggles with her asthma.
That comment resonated deeply with Lyrique, who said it made her feel like she mattered – like she “was a person who can help change the world.”
The 2019 spring season is the sixth year that Riverwest Elementary, which is one of 120 Girls on the Run sites throughout southeastern Wisconsin, has participated in the program. The Riverwest group also has the distinction of a unique partnership with the Brewers Community Foundation and the wives of the Milwaukee Brewers, Jones said. The Brewers wives sponsor the group, with several of the spouses attending Girls on the Run practices at Riverwest Elementary, running with the girls and cheering them on during drills.
It was a natural fit, said Jones, who sees this collaboration as a model for other partnerships Girls on the Run can foster. The more strong women and positive female role models interacting with the girls, the better, Jones said.
And for the women – many of whom are not from Milwaukee – they have the opportunity to become more connected to the community through the program, said Michelle Counsell, who acts as a liaison for the wives with the Brewers Community Foundation, and practices with the Riverwest Elementary Girls on the Run group. (She is also married to Brewers general manager Craig Counsell.)
“It’s teaching the girls life lessons, teamwork and confidence,” Counsell said about Girls on the Run of Southeastern Wisconsin.
The organization has a meaningful impact, said Counsell, recounting an interaction she had with one girl, who, after participating in the program, was instilled with the determination to never give up and the confidence in her ability to succeed.
“She can complete a 5K run – she knows she can do almost anything.”