They rode in strollers, biked, walked and ran. Some had their parents at their sides. Some had running buddies. Some set their own pace. Mostly, the enthusiastic crowd of girls at Saturday’s Girls on the Run 5k were smiling.
One of the biggest smiles was on the face of Marina Martushev of Kachemak Selo, the first runner to complete the course that began at the Homer United Methodist Church parking lot, looped twice around Homer High School’s cross-country trail and ended at the church parking lot. At the finish line, a medal was slipped around Marina’s neck by Girls on the Run volunteer Sherry Stead.
“The first season of Girls on the Run in Homer was fall 2013. This is our third season since we have a fall season and a spring season each school year,” said Tara Schmidt of AmeriCorps VISTA and Haven House Prevention Team, local organizer of Girls on the Run.
The purpose of Girls on the Run, an international program, is to inspire girls in grades 3 through 5 to be healthy, joyful and confident. Games and physical activity are used to spark discussions about self, being good teammates and friends and discovering how to individually and cooperatively improve communities. In Alaska, the program includes two councils: one in Southeast comprised of Juneau, Sitka and villages surrounding those communities; one in Southcentral comprised of eight Anchorage schools, Homer’s West Homer Elementary School and Fireweed Academy, and Kachemak Selo. With enough interest, Schmidt said the program also could spread to McNeil Canyon.
Adults work as coaches and assistant coaches with the girls.
“Teams have an average of four coaches, with a 15-person cap per team,” said Schmidt.
“This fall we had four coaches at West Homer: Kathy Sarns-Irwin, Rhonwen Jennings, Jenny Christianson and Assistant Coach Molly Mitchell. At Kachemak Selo we had four coaches as well: Arena White, Tatiana Kuzman, Zinovia Reutov, and Michele Stenger. At West Homer, the girls and their coaches met twice a week after school and three times a week at Kachemak Selo. Each fall and spring program is 12 weeks long and covers 14 lessons.
After making the decision to take up running when she was in the sixth grade, Sarns-Irwin said she began experiencing the long-lasting impacts the sport would made in her life.
“It was the 70s and not cool for girls to run, so it was a little bit of going against the main stream, but I loved it. I loved how it made me feel and I loved the other kids that did it,” said Sarns-Irwin, who credits the sport’s goal-setting and camaraderie as having changed her life.
The program’s lesson plan includes addressing such topics as “unplugging the negative cord and plugging in the positive cord,” something Sarns-Irwin described as “watching your thoughts.” It includes thinking up words that are positive and attitude-improving activities. Other lessons are devoted to topics such as standing up to peer pressure and working cooperatively.
A runner since the third grade, White once considered being a cross-country coach. Being a Girls on the Run coach for the 13 Kachemak Selo girls in the program is helping fulfill that dream.
“(The program) is really good because it gives the girls a chance to know there’s things out there to do that are healthy choices,” said White. “The program is all about self-esteem and living a healthy lifestyle. I talked to some of the girls individually and they said they are making healthier choices now as far as diet goes and they enjoy running and think its fun instead of work.”
Also no stranger to running, Reutov said she uses the beach and the switchback trail down the bluff to Kachemak Selo for her workouts. Through the program, she began working out with her 11-year-old daughter, Susanna G. Reutov, and participated in discussions on self-respect and gaining more self-awareness.
“It was a great experience to coach these girls,” said Reutov. “I had a great time myself and it kept me motivated to keep on running.”
While Haven House staff trains coaches and provides the program materials and technical support, “the brunt of the work for this program is done by vastly caring volunteers who donate their time to study the curriculum and deliver the lessons,” said Schmidt. “In the case of the Kachemak Selo coaches, they were translating the lessons into Russian as they were teaching them.”
After completing the Girls on the Run coursework, the next and final challenge is to complete a 5k alongside a running buddy, a positive adult role model. On Saturday, after a warm up that included girls who had completed the program and other girls in the community, completing that 5k was a challenge eagerly accepted.
“Girls on the Run is not just about making girls feel good about themselves,” said Schmidt.
“It’s about the larger roles they can play, even as young as eight. After the spring 2014 Girls on the Run season, five out of six (survey) respondents strongly agreed and the sixth agreed that ‘I can help make my community a better place.’”
For more information about Girls on the Run, volunteering as a coach, serving on the 5k planning team, donating financial support and snacks, or to share personal experiences about Girls on the Run, visit Girls on the Run Homer on Facebook or call Schmidt at 235-7712, ext. 227.