By Alicia Dziak

Self-esteem! Standing up for yourself! Standing up for others! Choosing your friends! Running!?

These things all have something in common — they’re all part of the Girls on the Run (GOTR) program, created for girls in grades 3-6 that’s gaining popularity in Western New York!

GOTR is a program that combines training for a 5K running event with healthy living education. The program is broken down into Girls on the Run (grades 3–5) and Girls on Track (grades 6–8).

The mission of GOTR is to instill self-esteem through health education, life skills development, mentoring relationships, and physical training — all of which are accomplished through an active collaboration with girls and their parents, schools, volunteers, staff and the community.

The Buffalo Council was started in 2010 by Katie Joyce and her “running buddy” Meghan Cavanaugh, who had heard about the success of Girls on the Run from friends and family living in other states around the country. The two thought it would be a great fit for the area’s schools, and while it started with only three schools in 2010, it’s grown to over 85 schools, running 100 programs all across Western New York.

GOTR utilizes a set curriculum that addresses relevant topics like self-image, bullying and healthy eating, all while promoting teamwork and exercise. By the end of the season, girls who started out being intimidated by the idea of running a 5K are eager to participate, many strutting their stuff in matching team attire, decorated GOTR T-shirts, and colored hair spray.

The end-of-season 5K will be held on Sunday, June 8, at the north campus of the University of Buffalo. UB is transformed into a racecourse, along with a “school village” where teams and families meet to warm up together and cheer each other on. The 5K is open to the public and is the major fundraiser for GOTR. Money raised goes right back into the program.

“In most sports, if you can’t afford the equipment to play, you can’t play,” said Joyce. “In Girls on the Run, our mission is to reach out to all girls and give them an opportunity to participate in an organized exercise program, regardless of their financial situation.”

This means that many schools receive fully aided GOTR programs, and many other receive partial aid.

Springville Elementary School’s Girls on the Run program was started in the fall of 2012 by Michelle Solly, physical education teacher at Springville Elementary School.

“When I found out what this program was about, I knew it would be a perfect fit for our school,” said Solly.

Springville’s GOTR, now in its fourth season, has been so popular that it expanded its program to include Girls on Track for the spring 2014 season.

“My favorite thing about Girls on the Run is meeting new friends,” said Blakelee Hoffman, 8, of Springville.

“I love to run, and I liked that we worked on things like breathing patterns, that help us run better,” added Elizabeth Clark, 9, also of Springville.

Does GOTR sound like something girls you know could benefit from? It’s not too late to start a new program for the fall 2014 season. Although GOTR is limited to 70 schools this fall, applications for new sites are being accepted from June 15–July 1, pending availability.

Coaches can be teachers, parents or community members, and they don’t even need to be runners — just people with a willingness to work with the girls, and meet with them twice a week, on weekdays that work with their schedules. Coaching GOTR is a great way to make a difference in the lives of young girls facing many challenges in today’s world.

GOTR girls can be seen cheering each other on and applying the positive lessons they learn in the program in their everyday activities.

“It’s been so much fun seeing all the girls’ self-confidence increase and realizing that running can be fun!” Solly said.

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