Columbus Does Good: Girls on the Run

The Girls on the Run 5k is not your typical running event. With more than 1,000 kids hitting the route with their teammates, volunteer coaches and families, running etiquette is left in the dust. They don’t audibly signal on the left, they run in a big clump, and they “literally stop dead in their tracks at the water stop,” says Jess Sparks, executive director of Girls on the Run of Central Ohio. There, they’ll nicely take the cup of water and hang around for minute before embarking on the rest of their run.

The 5K, held May 20, is the culmination of the Girls on the Run 10-week program aimed at empowering girls in third through fifth grade through movement. Since its local council was founded in 2008, the program has grown from 12 girls to over 100 sites around Central Ohio.

“When I found Girls on the Run to volunteer with I was like, ‘This is it. This is the thing that more girls need,” said Sparks, who started as a volunteer coach with that first group of girls. “[We] teach girls how to navigate conflict and healthily assert herself and how to be a stand-byer instead of a bystander when it comes to bullying.”

This, she said, is done through asking girls to think about themselves, who they are and how they navigate relationships with others, exploring these questions through physical activity. Although not every girl who participates in the program ends up loving running, Sparks said Girls on the Run helps them feel more confident in moving however their bodies are comfortable. “We always tell them, ‘Forward is your pace,’” Sparks said.

Christie Doty, an art teacher in the Columbus City School District, started the Girls on the Run program at Salem Elementary four years ago. The program was an immediate hit; Doty was forced to turn away girls even for its first season, and she says it’s changed the atmosphere of the school, providing the opportunity for fourth and fifth graders to act as role models and mentors while giving younger elementary girls something to aspire to. It also, she said, helped fill a gap at her school in both after-school extracurriculars and sports for girls.

Girls on the Run has councils across the country, the first of which was started in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996. Since then, the organization has focused on expanding to communities that can sustain a site from one season to another. In Central Ohio, these closely mirror the demographics of the region, an effort the program prioritized through intentional site development.

“We want to make sure we’re growing in all communities, serving girls of all race, ethnicity, identity, and ability,” Sparks said.

The organization also utilizes a curriculum that each site uses, increasing the continuity across neighborhoods and school districts so that one Girls on the Run program in the 43207 area looks almost the same as a program in a 43221 school.

“It’s really important for our girls to be building confidence that they’re getting through Girls on the Run, and our community needs—every community needs—strong girls and women that believe in themselves, that believe that they can do whatever they set their mind to,” Doty said.

As Sparks looks into the future of the program, she sees it expanding into increasingly rural areas around Columbus and potentially into Southeast Ohio. But, although the interest might be there, she says GOTR needs to find creative ways to address the challenges those areas present, like an increased need for transportation.

“It’s really just about meeting girls where they’re at and being with them through this critical timing [in] the journey of their lives,” Sparks said.

“We don’t teach girls what to think.We teach them how to think for themselves.”

GOTR kicks off at 8 a.m. (9:30 race start) at Columbus Commons on May 20. For more info, visit girlsontheruncentralohio.org/5K.

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