Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International (GOTR), was inspired after an evening run. Barker used her experience in four Ironman World Championships, a Master of Social Work degree, and inadequacy from her teen years to pilot the first version of GOTR in 1996. She started in Charlotte, North Carolina. The program has since grown like wildfire and is now in 173 cities across North America.
“I think what Molly was trying to do was improve self-awareness,” said Carlena Harris, school expansion coordinator for GOTR Austin. “She found that girls starting at age 8 have a lot of questions; their bodies start changing and so does their view of the world.”
A big part of GOTR is learning how to live outside of the “Girl Box,” where girls are valued more for their appearance than their character.
Kristi Schatz, a transplant from Chicago, introduced GOTR to Austin in 2008. Schatz coached GOTR for three years and competed in the Chicago Marathon—among countless other races—before moving to Austin. Her mother-in-law worked at Bridge Point Elementary School in Eanes ISD, where they launched the first location.
GOTR is for girls ages 8 through 12. Physical education teacher and GOTR coach at Pleasant Hill Elementary, Elizabeth Ayers said that’s what she loves most about the program.
“Everyone can work together and celebrate the fact that they worked so hard for something,” Ayers said. “We have the super-athletes and the non-athletic at all.”
The 12-week curriculum is divided into three sections. The girls start with “All About Me,” then “Building My Team,” and “Community Begins with Me.” These steps foster positive attitudes while emphasizing the importance of relying on themselves, supporting their team, being active members of the community, and, most importantly, living outside of the “Girl Box,” all while training for a 5K at the end of the program.
The program lets the girls see that the coaches can also struggle with their own running goals, but with love and support, they get through as a team. Ayers said it gives the older girls a chance to be leaders.
Beginning runner Lindsey Ervi, a theater arts teacher at Pleasant Hill and GOTR coach, believes that there isn’t an ideal coach, although teachers do have an advantage. She and Ayers already have relationships with the girls, and it gives them a chance to hone in on the girls day-to-day actions and help them find their values. According to Ayers, it’s the first opportunity these girls have to discover their own values.
“Can you believe how powerful it would be to have your teacher be your coach,” Ervi asked.
“If you’re in third grade and you see Mrs. Reynolds, whether or not you see a coach, you’re still going to see her next year.”
While working on her masters degree at St. Edwards University in Organizational Leadership and Ethics, Harris and some of her classmates did their Capstone project on teaching leadership in all-girls schools. That experience helped her seek other opportunities and ultimately brought her to GOTR.
“As a mother, I’ve always been fascinated with how certain women became leaders and others didn’t,” Harris said. “I think all women are leaders.”
Although Ayers is a marathoner, she has three sons that are 16, 13, and 11 years old. None of them are runners, so she takes pride in the girls’ interest in running. The girls avidly want to know about a coach’s running progression. She says everyone struggles, and it’s important for them to see that.
“We talk to them about races we’re doing and training for marathons,” Ayers said. “They want to know what kind of training that is, how far I ran, and why I’m building up.”
The bond with coaches helps the girls talk about important issues that they might otherwise discuss with their friends. Ayers prefers they ask an adult because girls their age aren’t going to have all the answers.
“We talk about gossiping, how it hurts people, how to be a listener, how to be a good friend, what’s dangerous and how to say no,” she said. “They’re very open and honest. I think that’s from focusing on teamwork and being in a safe environment.”
Ervi said it’s important to simply give them opportunities to talk about issues. Learning to find a suitable solution also gives them accountability. Issues most common at her school include obesity and, according to her GOTR students, parents who smoke.
The lessons in GOTR aren’t just for the girls, but for the whole family. Daughters are pushing for parents to be more active. She said their campus likes to promote family involvement, like asking the parents to be their daughter’s running buddy at the 5K. Regularly she hears how GOTR has affected the family when school is on break.
“We tell them ‘If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it,’” Ayers said. “The parents will say, ‘Oh my gosh, we ran so much over Christmas.’”
Above all else, the coaches want their students to take skills they can use for the rest of their lives. They want the girls to know how to compliment one another, be more active, and be able to measure their self-worth.
“They’ve struggled with these girls [they’ve run with],” Ayers said. “It’s hard, and there are tears sometimes. They’ve been through that kind of war, so when they do go to middle school, they have these relationships they can lean on.”