Running program empowers girls

Fifth-grader Maddie Brown says she likes to run through her neighborhood for fun. Now, because of a running program offered at her school twice a week, she runs with a purpose.

Maddie is one of 24 girls participating in Winecoff Elementary School's Girls on the Run program, a running club designed to promote fitness and self-esteem in elementary- and middle school-aged girls.

Winecoff is one of three Cabarrus elementary schools (with R. Brown McAllister and Odell elementaries) offering the program for the first time this fall.

Jessica Otto, program director of Girls on the Run, said the timing of the program's expansion into Cabarrus County was perfect. At the same time local schools were showing interest in the program, Girls on the Run wanted to expand from Mecklenburg County into Cabarrus.

Together, the three Concord schools have 48 participants in the program. Depending on the success of this fall's 10-week program, all three sites are entertaining thoughts of offering the program again in the spring or next school year.

The Girls on the Run curriculum teaches the empowerment of girls in a group setting. The running portion of the hour-long sessions promotes self-confidence through physical fitness.

Jenny Byrd, a McAllister guidance counselor and GOTR coordinator, said the curriculum complements other lessons in life skills that she teaches on a regular basis.

A nonprofit organization, Girls on the Run originated in Charlotte in 1996. It quickly grew nationwide. The Girls on the Run International website says the program has more than 99,000 members in 46 states and Canada.

As at McAllister, where parent Sandi Wise expressed an interest on behalf of her fourth-grade daughter, Rylie, Winecoff started with a parent contacting the Girls on the Run office in Charlotte. Otto met with administration from both schools, including Winecoff assistant principal Mary Newsome.

Starting in August, Newsome promoted the program on the school's morning video announcements. Some girls and their parents contacted Newsome, and in some cases she recruited girls who she thought would benefit from the program.

"There were ones who I thought could use a little more attention," said Newsome, "... and really benefit from having the self-motivation. I wanted to find girls that would be dedicated to the program."

"I thought it would be a lot of fun," said Sha'mya Smith, a Winecoff fifth-grader. "I can encourage people when they're feeling down and stuff. And it gives me a good chance to meet everybody."

The cost to participate is $160, but Newsome said about 70 percent of the Winecoff students in the program receive sponsorship from Girls on the Run and pay a minimum $10 fee.

Like Newsome, Kimberly Martin, coordinator of the program at Odell Elementary, was skeptical that her school would fill all 12 available spots. Surprising her, the program filled up within 20 minutes of opening its online registration.

Martin, who runs for exercise, was motivated to start the Odell program and reached out to Otto. She attended GOTR training - including getting certified in CPR and First Aid - and rallied the appropriate number of adult volunteers.

Odell Elementary doesn't have a walking/running track as Winecoff and McAllister do, but it doesn't dampen the spirits of Martin or her participants.

"We don't have a track at our school," she says. "So we use the gym, the bus parking lot and inside the halls of the school."

On the running side, the program's goal is to build up each runner's endurance so she can participate in a session-ending 5-kilometer run Dec. 3. Students from all of the Mecklenburg/Cabarrus Council's 90-plus sites will be invited.