A national program with the goal of girls’ empowerment, Girls on the Run, is off to a promising start in Halifax County. A group of volunteer coaches brought the program to local girls in the third through fifth grade. The 13 girls in the program meet with their coaches twice a week at the Halifax County High School track for practice, where they exercise and learn other life skills.
The girls do exercises such as squats, jumping jacks and push-ups at the practices, but they also learn character building and life skills such as “self-respect, how to express themselves, how to treat others and confidence,” said Kristen Zerbato, volunteer coach and executive director of the YMCA of South Boston/Halifax County.
The Y hosts the girls in the program at its facility on rainy days.
Girls on the Run is a “physical activity-based positive youth development program designed to develop and enhance girls’ social, psychological and physical competencies to successfully navigate life experiences.”
At the end of the 10-week program, the girls will run or complete a noncompetitive 5K.
“This age range can be a tender time in the life of a girl. As they get older, we hope they will remember how valuable and special they are — and build good habits to have a healthy life,” said volunteer coach Rebekah Slabach. “Completing a 5K at this age is a feat; and when they do that at the end of the program, they will feel like they can do anything.”
Another of the volunteer coaches, Senecca Kirkhart, who is also a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, said she is happy to be a mentor to the girls in the program. An avid runner, Kirkhart first heard about the program in one of the races she ran years ago, and said she was eager to become involved in the program when Zerbato and Slabach brought it to Halifax County.
“It’s a great program with a great curriculum for building confidence and self-esteem in young girls,” Kirkhart said. “After two sessions, the girls are already feeling good about themselves and feeling empowered.”
Zerbato sees the program as a major confidence booster for the young girls, who are able to express themselves with girls their own age in a “non-judgmental” space. At the end of each practice, she said every girl gives out an “energy award,” or a word of encouragement, to another girl. Zerbato believes the interaction between the members of the Girls on the Run program (in a socially-distanced environment) is important especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic when children are not able to go to school every day and interact with their peers.
Building “good, strong relationships with others” is one of the intended outcomes of the Girls on the Run program, Kirkhart said. The girls go home each session with an assignment for the next session. Kirkhart shared that the girls’ assignment for their last session was to reach out and form a stronger connection with a girl who is an acquaintance. Along with building healthy relationships, the other main themes of the Girls on the Run curriculum are self-awareness and empowerment or teamwork. The running games each session tie into the lesson from the curriculum.
Learning about the important role of physical activity in everyday life is a skill that Zerbato hopes the girls will carry with them into adulthood.
“We’re teaching the girls how to move, and learning to like to move at a young age is really important,” Zerbato said. “By moving, we release those endorphins which creates a positive mood. Having young people learn that can set them up for success down the road…It (exercise) is a way for them to channel their feelings and emotions and/ or to have fun.”
“So many kids live a sedentary life with the invention of technology,” she said. “I think this (third through fifth grade) is a very impressionable age for these girls, and if they can start learning about exercising and being healthy now, they’re more likely to carry that with them into adulthood.”
With the Girls on the Run program off to a positive start in Halifax County, Zerbato said her hope is to expand the program to older, middle school aged girls in the future. The program currently has six volunteer coaches: Zerbato, Slabach, Kirkhart, Sarah Gallegos (head coach), Jill Bradley and Cecilie Elliott.