The girls made their way to the starting line in waves, wearing grass skirts, tiaras, tutus, and fairy wings. Many were accompanied by their parents, some pushing strollers, some dressed in matching costumes, some running alongside their daughters hand-in-hand. Georgia Tech’s Buzz and the Braves’ Homer danced as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber blared from speakers. Someone yelled into a mic, “Girls on the Run 5K! You’ve been training for this. Now it’s time to shine!”
Held at Turner Field last November, the 5K also marked Girls on the Run Atlanta’s 15th anniversary. Since the chapter was founded, more than 17,000 girls in grades three through eight have participated in the program, which combines physical activity with social and emotional development. Teams—there are 100 this season—meet twice a week for lessons led by volunteer coaches, centered around themes like body image, peer pressure, and healthy friendships. The culminating event of each 12-week season is a 5K: the fall race at Turner Field and a spring race at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Most teams are based at schools, with 40 percent at Title 1 schools, where at least 70 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. (Girls on these teams are given a full scholarship to participate, new running shoes, and healthy snacks.) “We’re in schools where there isn’t a lot of programming for girls,” says Lea Rolfes, executive director of the Atlanta chapter. “The lessons are a safe space where they can talk about their lives.”
The program also fosters an identity shift in many who had never before considered themselves athletes. Audrey Ann Ochoa, an eighth grader at Summerour Middle School, was hesitant to get involved at first. “When they mentioned running, I was like, no. I was scared,” she says. But her friends encouraged her, and on the day of the race, “I told myself: You can do this.” She ended up walking for part of the 5K, but she finished. Next time, she says, “I’m going to run even more.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue.