Girls on the Run: empowering girls from start to finish

Story and gallery by ERIN MARIE SLEATER

Girls on the Run Utah holds a simple yet powerful vision: creating a world where “every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.”

Girls on the Run International was founded in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina, before reaching Utah 11 years ago. “We started with two teams reaching about 30 girls,” Heidi Moreton, executive director of the Utah chapter, said. “Now, we have around 150 teams, 1,900 girls and 10,000 community members across Utah.”

The organization started with a group of volunteers and a few board members. Now there are five paid employees, 17 board members and hundreds of volunteers.

Moreton explains Girls on the Run is most easily defined as a nonprofit after-school youth development program. During the 12-week program, GOTR seeks to inspire girls to be healthy and confident through experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running. The program aims to explore challenges participants face or will face in the future, as well as develop skills to navigate upcoming life experiences. Initially, the program gives girls a better understanding of individual identity, followed by emphasizing the importance of teamwork, then exploring how to positively connect with the community.

Moreton stresses that along with important life lessons, physical exercise is woven seamlessly into the program to implement healthy habits and an appreciation of fitness into the girls’ lives. The program leads to a 5-kilometer race giving the girls a framework for setting and achieving goals. GOTR also assists with educational expenses. With 55 percent of participants falling below the poverty line, the foundation will provide $160,000 in scholarships this year.

It’s easy to tell how passionate Moreton is about this organization. She beams as she explains what her position means: “As executive director, I am the leader of the organization. I always try to put the mission of the program first in all that I do. It is my goal to make sure I am delivering the highest quality program.”

Looking forward, Moreton explains she would like to increase GOTR Utah’s success by offering additional programming and events to support health and wellness.

“This year we are launching our summer programming, Camp GOTR, which will include the best of Girls on the Run programming combined with all the fun of summer camp. We also are offering our first ever women’s wellness event this year, called Actually I Can. The event will include life coaching activities that dive into how your thoughts drive your actions, body mapping, finding your soul line, meditation, yoga, a hike, and time well-spent with like-minded women.”

Pinpointing Moreton’s proudest moment at GOTR proved to be a challenge, as it became clear she has many to choose from. She settles on a moment from the 2016 5-kilometer race event at Liberty Park: “The last girl to cross the finish line had a disease which made it difficult for her to run. I was so proud to offer a program where this girl could really shine. Her mom and everyone who witnessed her finishing the race were in tears … her determination was so inspirational.”

It’s easy to see why GOTR Utah has grown so fast as Moreton explains the program more thoroughly. Through the program girls find the confidence, empowerment and the courage to be themselves. Lessons are designed to build girls’ self-worth and help them feel greater confidence in who they are. Activities help girls recognize their personal strengths and teach them how to stand up for themselves and others. Girls learn to recognize their star power and understand how to activate it. They learn to make healthy choices that stay with them for a lifetime.

Not only does the program benefit the participants, but the volunteers as well. Marissa Ulibarri, 20, started as a running buddy for the program but loved GOTR so much she became a junior coach, then a head coach while finishing her senior year of high school in Salt Lake City.

“The girls I worked with motivated me to be a better person,” Ulibarri says in a Skype interview. “Each time we met no matter how long of a day they had at school, they constantly gave it their all. Their positivity radiated and made my day so much better.”

Ulibarri says she also gained important leadership skills, as she was able to teach important lessons every day to the girls. “I was their mentor but they were my motivation to be an overall better person again. I wanted to be the best person that they could look up to.”

Ulibarri said she watches the girls gain self-confidence, communication skills, leadership and problem-solving skills, as well as gaining knowledge of stress, friendships, and intimate relationships, alcohol and drug abuse.

Moreton and Ulibarri both insist there’s no other organization that directly compares to GOTR. Ulibarri says, “The program benefits young girls to grow into mature young women who will be confident in themselves and their abilities, and gives a strong foundation to be powerful and influential women in our world.”