Girls Empowerment Program Up, Running


On a hot afternoon in early September, girls race around a set of bright orange cones in Green Valley Park with their coaches. Most run, some skip and one does cartwheels.

“Good job!” yells coach Casandra Stouder.

Instead of name tags, each girl wears a sticker with an emotion or feeling listed such as “Happy,” “Creative,” “Fun” or “Joyful.” They laugh, enjoying the physical activity.


Participants in the Girls on the Run program do a warm-up exercise. Pictured are (from left to right): Sophia Vaughn, Emme Sopeland, Kailee Perch, Savannah White, Sierra Vela, Melissa La Spisa, coach Brandi Waugh and Arielle O’Connor.

At no time does the word “win” cross anyone’s lips. Instead, participants hear shouts of encouragement and enthusiasm.

The coaches organize the girls in a circle to begin talking about positive and negative thinking. The girls offer examples of what they believe that means to them.

The activities at Green Valley Park represent the start of the internationally recognized program, Girls on the Run.

A recent Tuesday launched the first day of a three-month program for girls from Julia Randall Elementary and Rim Country Middle School.

Designed to improve self-esteem, inspire healthy relationships, and celebrate strengths, Girls on the Run (GOTR) will teach by preparing girls to participate in a 5K run.

“We had all the girls show up on Tuesday — 14 third- through fifth-graders and eight junior high school students. The girls were all excited,” said Amity Justice GOTR area coordinator.

Each week, the girls and their coaches address issues such as body image, communication, nutrition, relationships, and the role of the media in their lives while training to compete in a 5 kilometer run or walk, or skip — it’s up to the girls to decide how they want to complete the event, said Justice.

Each of the topics covered addresses issues girls grapple with as they enter their pre-teen and teenage years, such as eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.

A study by New York University determined that starting around the age of 10, girls begin to define their value through their body. Social standards of beauty, as characterized by the media, make girls feel they can’t measure up and their self-esteem plummets.

Perceiving intelligence is not sexy; girls play down their abilities. Believing they only have value through their sexuality, pre-teen and teen girls engage in risky relationships and behaviors that result in pregnancy or depression.

In a survey by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 40 percent of girls ages 9 and 10 years old have tried to lose weight.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates eating disorders affect more than 5 million Americans every year.

The Center for Mental Health Services approximates 90 percent of those with eating disorders are females ages 12 to 25.

A Kaiser Foundation study found one in three articles in teen magazines focused on appearance, while in movies and television shows, 58 percent of female characters had comments about their physical appearance compared to only 26 percent of males.

The surgeon general reported 20 percent of teens, more girls than boys, suffer from depression.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports teen births represent 10 percent of all births in the United States.

Recent Roundup articles have highlighted the epidemic of teen sexual violence in Payson. Throughout the articles, the girls featured didn’t listen to their inner voice. The consequences made them wish they had learned to trust their intuition. GOTR aims to teach them do just that, while adding physical activity to improve their health, Justice explained.

Academic evaluations of the program record that after completing GOTR, girls commit to five days a week of physical activity, while improving their body image and self-esteem by up to 10 percent or more (www.girlsontherun .org/theprogram.html).

The program’s curriculum and training costs each participant $150, however, the organization will not turn away any girl who wishes to participate. Scholar-ships are available.


Sophia Vaughn (left), Emme Sopeland and Kailee Perch listen carefully as coach Brandi Waugh explains the rules of a game the girls are about to play.

Justice and Holly Crump, regional action committee chair, held a supporters event in the Village Wools Yarn Shop at the corner of Beeline and Bonita to inspire the community to get involved in the program.

The owner of the shop, Maureen Garlausky went to the Luna Fest fund-raising and informational meeting Crump and Justice put on this past summer. Intrigued by what she heard, Garlausky decided to open up her business to the GOTR organizers and sponsor a girl.

Last week, at a wine and cheese event, Garlausky filled a back room of her shop with guests who want to make a difference.

“I’m distressed about the young people. I saw an article in the Phoenix paper and on national TV about the program and I’m here to support,” said Barbara Balm.

“I’ve been listening to NPR about women and young girls. Maureen sent me an e-mail about the program and now I’m here,” said Diane Roeder, a Pine Strawberry Elementary School board member.

Justice and Crump have gathered more than $4,000 in scholarships and recruited supporters to begin creating a sustainable organization for next year. Attendees also found out about a chance to support GOTR through the “sole mate” running program. Justice and friends will gather pledges for races they participate in at various times of the year.

Contact Brandi Waugh at for more information about pledges. Contact Stephanie Ludwig at to sponsor a girl.

Since starting in 1996, more than 350,000 girls across the U.S. and Canada have changed their life by participating in the program.

At a kickoff event at Scoops on Monday, the girls in the program and their parents met each other and their coaches. Brianne DeWitt, a second-grade teacher at Payson Elementary School, volunteered to coach the junior high school team.

“I want to have a positive impact on girls. We’re teaching girls to use their voice. Every woman needs this,” said DeWitt.

In Green Valley Park, the girls finished up their talk. Before setting off on the next round of exercise, they stop by a picnic table for a gulp of water and a snack of carrots or apple slices.

“I love running!” said Emme Sopeland, sprinting off to round the orange cones.


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