Anita Martin wishes young girls weren't bombarded with assaults on their self-esteem through peer pressure and media images. But since they are, she decided to do something about it, "helping girls learn to stand up for themselves and develop healthy self-images."
Martin, 52, is a coach for the Madison-based program Girls on the Run. The program blends twice-weekly lessons on girls' development - physical, mental, emotional and social - with "uplifting" training for runs. The messages are tailored for girls 8 to 12, while they're still receptive to what adults say but also feeling the pull of their peers.
The goal is to reduce risky activities like adolescent sex, substance abuse and unhealthy eating. The 10-week after-school program meets in the spring and fall.
As part of this program, the girls train for running events, including a 5 K (3.1 mile) run on Nov. 14 at Village Park in Waunakee. The run will include girls from programs all around Dane County. The public is invited to participate or to cheer the girls on. For details, see www.girlsontherundaneco.org.
Martin started coaching in March 2009 after hearing about Girls on the Run in a networking newsletter. A freelance writer, she wrote an article about the program and decided to become involved herself.
"I've never had a good feeling about my running ability," Martin says. "I always told myself 'I can't' when it came to a lot of physical things, and then when I started to see that I could run, I decided to change the 'I can't' to 'I can too.'"
Martin now leads a group of seven girls at the Goodman Community Center. The coaching team includes three other members: Julie Schnebly, Carla Virlee and Rachael Weiker. The coaches become mentors, trusted adults with whom the girls can share concerns.
In a recent lesson entitled "Bullying Is for the Birds," Virlee explained the different types of bullying - physical, verbal and emotional. When she asked the girls to raise their hands if they'd been bullied, one of them interjected, "How many people have been bullied today?"
Four out of the seven girls raised their hands, which surprised the coaches. "Obviously," says Martin, "this is an important issue for us to address."
Girls on the Run (GOTR) was started in 1996 by Molly Barker in Charlotte, N.C. Barker was in Madison last week to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the chapter.
A runner from age 15, she found herself stuck in what she calls "the girl box" - rigid expectations of how girls should look and act.
Barker took a stand against this. Using her skills as a teacher and counselor, along with research on adolescent issues, she developed the early version of the program. The first season, 13 young girls participated. The next year there were 26, and the concept took off.
Girls on the Run International was created in 2000. Today, there are chapters in more than 160 locations across the United States and Canada, including five in Wisconsin.
The Dane County chapter was founded in 2004 by area women wishing to prepare their young daughters for life. A group of Madison women who run together, a woman from Verona with a young daughter, and a Stoughton mom with two daughters each separately contacted GOTR International and came together to start the Dane County chapter.
Today, the county chapter boasts 200 girls from Middleton, Verona, Oregon, Waunakee, Sun Prairie, Stoughton and Monona. In Madison, there are clubs at Shorewood Hills, Goodman Community Center, Warner Park, the Boys and Girls Clubs on Allied Drive and Taft Street, and Edgewood Campus School. In spring 2010, new clubs will launch in Cottage Grove and Mount Horeb.
Sara Pickard, the executive director of GOTR of Dane County, originally put her banking background to use as the group's treasurer. As the chapter grew, the need for a paid executive director grew as well.
"As I wrote the job description, I realized that this was exactly the blend of social issues, along with helping women and children, that I was looking for in a career," Pickard explains. She become executive director in 2008, the group's only paid position. Coaches and all other staff are volunteers.
Girls pay $150 to participate, but there is a sliding scale based on family income. "We work on the honor system," says Pickard. GOTR of Dane County has an annual budget of around $100,000.
Pickard secured grant money from New Balance shoes, one of GOTR International's corporate sponsors. GOTR International is also backed by Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Goody's Hair Products.
"We also rely a lot on local businesses to help fund our program," Pickard says. "Associated Bank is the main sponsor of our run on Saturday."
Recently, Martin taught a media literacy lesson to increase awareness of the negative ways that media portray girls and women. To make her point, Martin showed the girls magazine ads touting exercise supplements, perfume and fashion.
The girls wrote down their responses to each ad. Then, after each response, they ran a 25-yard cone loop.
Talandra Jennings, who'll turn 11 later this month, is excited about Saturday's event, and seems to have a good perspective. "If you think you can't complete the race, pace yourself and you can reach your goal," she says. "It feels so good working to reach the goal."
Facts and figures
The bad news: Almost two-thirds of girls in grades five through 12 are dissatisfied with their body shape and want to lose weight. Girls as young as five form negative self-images based on their weight.
Among girls, an emphasis on popularity and slimness along with increased television viewing are linked to low self-esteem.
Some good news: Girls who participate in physical activities are 40% less likely to smoke. They have higher self-esteem, a better body image and lower levels of depression. They also have better relationships with parents, get better grades, and are less likely to use drugs and engage in risky sexual behavior during adolescence.