The Girls on the Run program will host its 5K run Dec. 4 to close its fall season.
It might be difficult for spectators to keep up with all 90 clubs of elementary and middle school girls in the Mecklenburg/Cabarrus Council event; however, the runners from Piney Grove Elementary School will be easy to recognize.
Piney Grove runners will have frog-themed green-and-black scarves draped around their necks. The school's 15 runners are honoring the memory of Marie Coffy, one of the program's assistant coaches and a second-grade teacher, who died unexpectedly just weeks before the fall season.
GOTR has an established curriculum that emphasizes empowerment, teaching girls life lessons specific to their gender and age.
The nonprofit organization was created in Charlotte in 1996 and quickly grew nationwide. The Girls on the Run International website says the program has more than 99,000 members in 46 states and Canada.
Piney Grove established its program 10 years ago and regularly registers the maximum 15 girls. It conducts 10-week sessions in fall and spring, each ending with a 5K run in which all of the Mecklenburg/Cabarrus Council sites are included.
Third-grade teacher Melissa Daniel, 33, has served as head coach for six years. She says GOTR is special to Piney Grove Elementary because the program mixes students of various socio-economic backgrounds.
Piney Grove members have faced everything from homelessness to having a parent die. School staff often step forward to buy shoes for needy runners or pay for runners' registration fees.
"The team never made them feel any different," said Daniel. "They made them feel for that one hour that they weren't homeless kids. They were just like everyone else."
This year, Piney Grove had six members return to the program, including fourth-graders Tatiana Rivas and Zoey McCrimmon. Tatiana encouraged her friend Chadalyn Williams to join. All of them knew Coffy.
The mother of two elementary-school-age children, Coffy volunteered to coach in 2009 when Daniel was on maternity leave. She enjoyed it so much she decided to continue.
Coffy, 40, was known among her runners for leading her favorite cheer at the end of practice. The "hamburger cheer" goes like this: "Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Is it done yet? We-e-e-ll done!"
On Sept. 10, Coffy was driving when she lost consciousness and drifted to the side of the road. Medics revived her at the scene but she died at the hospital the next day. School staff know only that she died of natural causes.
Coffy's death hit students and the GOTR runners hard. Chadalyn and Zoey were part of class efforts to raise money for Coffy's family and make sympathy cards for her children.
"I liked Ms. Coffy because she was a great coach," said fourth-grader Eliza Aguirre. "And once I knew she passed away I was really sad because she wasn't on our Girls on the Run team anymore."
She's there in spirit, though. Her name comes up at practice, especially when the team chants the hamburger cheer. Daniel made the scarves to honor Coffy's affinity for collecting frog-themed novelties.