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On your mark, get set, go – to becoming confident, healthy girls By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

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n a mild March day, 17 girls gathered afterschool, lacing up their running shoes in anticipation of Viewmont’s Girls on the Run program. Girls on the Run is a non-profit program that has involved more than one million girls across the United States and Canada to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem-solving skills and make healthy decisions while combining to train for a 5K race. Groups, coordinated by volunteers through schools, usually meet after school twice each week. The program started in 1996 in North Carolina with 13 girls at one school and now reaches more than 180,000 girls in all 50 states. Utah jumped on board in 2007 with 30 girls, at two schools but now teaches more than 1,900. This year in Murray, seven of the nine public elementary schools have groups, involving about 100 girls. Viewmont is coached by five volunteers, including fourth-grade teacher April Johnson. “I love doing it,” Johnson said, saying she coached two years at Parkside Elementary before directing it the past three years at Viewmont. “I love the lessons they learn on how to be strong, independent girls. They learn how to get out of a funk, how to realize their potential, how to get outdoors and be active.” As the girls arrive to get ready for Girls on the Run, coaches check in with them, ask how their day was and let them socialize for a few minutes before starting a lesson. There are 22 lessons covered in the 12-week course addressing the girl herself; friendships; family; and community. One lesson has girls activate their “star power,” physical education teacher and coach Sunshine Szedeli said. “Basically, they learn to be confident, be kind, learn how to shine, take control of their emotions, give themselves positive self-talk and talk to others in a kind, calm way,” she said. “There’s a lot to be said about the program. They’re learning social skills, gaining

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Viewmont girls have fun while achieving their goals, including running a 5K, through the Girls on the Run afterschool program. (Photo courtesy of Viewmont Elementary)

confidence and finding value in their school and community.” After the 15-minute lesson, the girls play a game to reinforce what they learned as well as to practice running and build endurance. “We may play a game that goes along with the skill, such as building self-confidence,” Johnson said. “For example, freeze tag. They need to give themselves positive self-talk to unfreeze while they practice running. They’re cheering each other on and becoming friends.” Other times, they may run laps around their school field, building up their mileage in preparation for a Girls on the Run 5K that will be held Saturday, June 1, at Sugar House Park. “We have them fill out identification cards where they write down how far they run and how they felt. They can look back and see very measurably of where they first started and realize, it isn’t that hard now,”

Szedeli said. But the girls aren’t on their own, Johnson pointed out. The school also has a practice 5K three weeks beforehand so they know what to expect on race day and every girl has a running buddy — a parent, sibling, volunteer — for the race. “The girls are building confidence through running and learning how to make healthy choices and find balance in their lives,” she said. The program also includes a service component, something that the girls decide upon each year, Szedeli said. In the past, Viewmont Girls on the Run held a bake sale to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association, inspired by a girl in the group whose movement may be limited to a wheelchair, but was an active member of the group. Last year, the group invested in improving and cleaning up school grounds. Teaching assistant Kristen Snow, who

along with kindergarten teacher Jessica Felt and Murray School District check and connect mentor Brittany Roller round out the Viewmont coaches, said it’s rewarding to see the outcome. “It’s fun to see them complete the program, their excitement and confidence that they can accomplish something hard — and the lessons are something that they can rely on for years to come,” she said. “They’re learning life skills about themselves and how to better their community.” Johnson also said that she has seen a turnaround in the classroom and at the school. “These girls are able to stand up, solve problems, be respectful and address differences calmly,” she said. “They’re creating friendships not just with their grade-level peers, but across the grade levels. It’s helping them become healthy and positive, and at the same time, building relationships to make our community a positive, caring one.” l

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