When Molly Barker exclaimed, “I feel beautiful,” the crowd of runners, running buddies, volunteers and family members cheered. When she yelled, “I am a girl on the run,” everyone – female and male alike – shouted, “I am a girl on the run!”
More than 100 girls from around Southeast Alaska participated in Saturday’s Girls on the Run event in Juneau. The after-school program has been in Juneau since 2008, but this particular run was special – Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker was visiting from North Carolina.
Girls on the Run is a three-month after-school running program that empowers girls to be healthy, happy and confident. Each program session culminates in a 5K run.
Glacier Valley fifth grader Teija Loving says the program works.
“Because you can get fit and you can have new friends and you can, like, just meet a lot of new people and you can have more respect about yourself,” Teija says.
Emma Rice, also in fifth grade, says she’s learned a lot from the program.
“To, like, be confident and never give up on yourself and don’t think that you’re a failure,” Emma says.
Teija and Emma are on the cusp of entering a new phase of life where, Barker says, things starts to get more difficult.
“What I’ve learned is that around sixth grade, which is the age you guys are, the world suddenly – I don’t know if you’ve experienced this – starts to somehow get the focus off of who you are in the inside and put the focus where? On your outsides, like, maybe how you look, your body, your hair, all the other stuff,” Barker said.
Speaking to sixth grade girls at Floyd Dryden Middle School, Barker shared one way to handle this.
“If you are funny, are you going to kind of be a little bit funny if your gift is to make people smile and laugh? No, you’re going to really let that out,” Barker said. “So part of what I think we can do as strong empowered women, instead of focusing on each other’s outsides, we can bring our gifts, walk it into a room and own it.”
This is a lesson that Barker herself didn’t have growing up in the South. She struggled with being popular and fitting in. At age 15, she started drinking. Barker said her struggle continued until she was 32.
“I had this experience while out on a run actually that just changed everything and I became incredibly conscious of the fact that I lived 32 years of my life allowing words and other people to define me and I thought, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,'” she said.
Three years later, Barker created Girls on the Run. It started in 1996 with 13 girls. Now, more than 130,000 girls in the U.S. and Canada are part of the program.
AWARE is Juneau’s women’s shelter and domestic abuse nonprofit. It started Girls on the Run as one of its primary prevention initiatives. The program has spread to 11 other communities in Southeast Alaska and serves more than 350 girls.
Back at the 5K, 11-year-old Eli Mead stands with his little sister, Samantha, who’s in Girls on the Run.
“I’m her running buddy today because I love running,” Eli says. “I’m going to make sure that she never stops and I’m going to compliment her and I’m going to tell her that she’s doing fine.”
Volunteer Leslie Daugherty is also a running buddy.
“It’s just about taking baby steps. So we walk until we feel like running and maybe we don’t feel like running at all, and that’s okay, too. We’ll just be joyful about it and just feel strong and like we can do anything,” Daugherty says.
And that’s what Girls on the Run is all about – bringing joy and confidence. Or, as a girl once told Barker, “teaching girls to be the boss of their own brains.”