Girls on the Run: Nonprofit keeps girls active and healthy despite pandemic challenges

Girls’ confidence drops about twice as much as boys’ during adolescence and now COVID-19 has dramatically increased the number of teen girls reporting loneliness and isolation. Thankfully, Girls on the Run of Atlanta (GOTR Atlanta) pivoted during the pandemic to still offer girls in third to eighth grade a virtual 10-week program that incorporates physical activity, encourages personal development, promotes team building and connection, and culminates with a 5K.

“Now more than ever girls really need us and we’re here for them,” GOTR Atlanta Executive Director Lea Rolfes said.We have the quality, research-based curriculum that intentionally addresses the challenges of being a girl, COVID-19 or not.”

For 20 years, GOTR Atlanta has delivered after-school programming focused on teaching healthy habits, building confidence, caring for oneself and others, and making a meaningful contribution to their communities. It began with three teams and 30 girls and has since served 30,000 girls across four counties – Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett.

“My role has been to grow the organization to become more accessible to get more girls involved,” Rolfes said. “We offer full scholarships, financial assistance, running shoes, running bras and snacks. We’re about breaking down barriers to get girls committed to activity and connected with friends no matter their zip code, family situation, race or ethnicity.”

Each session is led by trained volunteer coaches who use physical activity interspersed with dynamic discussions to guide and mentor the girls.

“We talk about anything and everything. How to be a good friend.  Who we surround ourselves with. Our emotions are very important to us,” GOTR Atlanta Board Member sand former coach Kathryn Gilbert said.

The program attracts girls drawn to running and others drawn to the friendships and conversations about processing their emotions.

In response to the question, what would you tell your friends who weren’t in GOTR Atlanta, girls answered:   “It’s fun, it teaches you ways to calm down and interact with other girls.  It’s also a good way to get some extra exercise and reach a goal” a sixth grader said.  “It’s supportive and helps teach you how to believe in yourself and be a better person,” a fifth grader responded. “My favorite thing is Interacting with my teammates because I never want to be lonely,” a third grader shared.

COVID-19 did have an impact. The nonprofit typically fields 100 teams in the fall, 140 in the spring. This fall, only 42 teams participated, with only two teams meeting in person. But through Zoom conversations and exercises like lunges and jumping jacks at home, the girls pressed on.  The other silver lining was that girls from schools or communities that didn’t offer GOTR Atlanta joined eight open teams. The virtual format allowed for girls from Duluth, Mableton, and South Fulton to participate on the same team.

“For being completely virtual and just about all strangers, our girls did a phenomenal job becoming a team,” a coach shared.  “They supported each other and really opened up, sharing personal anecdotes and details. It was amazing to watch and be part of.”

And at the end of fall season, the girls still came together for a celebratory virtual rae, “5K Your Way,” which recognized that not all girls had the same access to a safe place to run.

“We mailed and shared via email – a bingo card of activities that they could do at home. We had live workouts, dance parties and fun activities on our social media channels. Girls still got their bibs, their medals and finisher t-shirt. We had girls on bikes, on rollerblades, running laps around buildings and dancing in their living rooms. It was neat to see how they put an exclamation point on the end of the season,” Rolfes said.

Registration is open for the spring season, which begins on Feb. 15.

“We are trying to identify places where we can have practice – parks, churches or any public building – and implement protocols of masks and social distancing. We are hoping to have half of the teams meet in-person, half virtual. There is definitely going to be something for everyone – even if GOTR hasn’t been in your community before,” Rolfes said.

As the program builds back its number of teams, volunteers are needed to start a new site, become a coach, or support the staff.

“If someone feels called to join us, we can certainly use them,” Gilbert said.

For more information, visit girlsontherunatlanta.org.