One of the biggest impacts Girls on the Run has is creating a community for young girls. This is precisely what we witnessed from joining in on an afternoon practice with the San Francisco, Bay Area chapter. They started with a discussion about peer pressure, each of the girls presented their own challenges and a piece of advice for their friends. The words we found particularly powerful were from two middle schoolers around the pressures of being skinny and or dating the cute boys at school over the ones who treat you well. Specifically: “Accept yourself, know that you are beautiful inside and out and support your friends” and “If you don’t like them, don’t date them. Date people that make you feel good about yourself, not because they have nice hair”. I think we can all appreciate this advice – even as adults.

The practices are led by volunteer coaches who facilitate learning and provide mentorship throughout the workout. They present the girls with challenging questions throughout the run and hold their hands through some of the laps. By the end of the day the girls had spelled out “I know what is best for me” across their arms and hands. The sweat and smiles we witnessed were enough to want to share the full story with a broader Strava community.

For ten weeks these girls come together in a supportive environment that fosters skills like leadership, self-esteem and health. At the end of the ten week program, the girls work together to finish their first 5K which is a huge accomplishment. It’s easy to forget the power of a run, the community, the confidence and the strength one can gain from achieving such a goal.

Strava is proud to host the upcoming Girls on the Run (GOTR) of the Bay Area Fundraiser on Thursday, April 23rd. There will be some yoga, a plank challenge and tasty bites and cocktails to follow. Get Details.

We sat down with Jessica Hyman, the Associate Board President to get a better sense of why this organization was started and hear about her involvement.

How did you get started with GOTR?

I first got involved with GOTR by coaching at Malcolm X Elementary school in Hunters Point. Signing up to be a coach can feel intimidating because of the time commitment but I just decided this was something I wanted to do. Just like training for a marathon, most of us “don’t have the time”, but you make it work.

The first few practices were challenging. For example the girls were not keen on running (anyone that’s taken a break and started back up knows the feeling) so I brought a jambox to practice and had them play freeze dance instead. All of a sudden running was fun again.

The age range on my team was really big and most of the girls weren’t friends before the program so we focused a lot on team building; easy things like games where we complimented each other. We used the GOTR curriculum to learn about important topics like eating healthy, peer pressure and how to manage feelings.

It was incredible to watch the girls transform through the 10 weeks.

They became little athletes, healthier, happier and truly formed strong supportive relationships with one another. The impact was incredible.

Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to make volunteering for this organization a bigger part of your life?

The morning of the big 5k all the girls were really nervous. For most of them this was their first time running outside of the comfort of their playground and Golden Gate Park was filled with 100s of other girls. What was incredible to me was how the girls really looked after one another. They held hands, cheered each other on and stopped together for water breaks.

Some of the girls had real breakdowns during the run. Side aches, tears, fear of not being able to finish…the same feelings we all get during a tough workout. But they all finished. The look of accomplishment on each one of their faces at the finish line was enough to make anyone sign up to make this program a big part of their life.

I realized that goal setting, getting support from friends and then achieving what we set out to do is something we learn from sports as kids and then apply that process to other parts of our lives. Actually Strava has done a great job of recreating that process. We set goals, our Strava community encourages us and we are rewarded with achieving PRs, KOMS, QOMs etc. To be able to give that back to younger generations through Girls on the Run is a gift.

How has your involvement with GOTR changed your own life?

One of the ladies on our board just qualified for the Boston marathon. She said to me after, you know the last few miles were really tough but I thought about our girls finishing their first 5k and that gave me what I needed to keep going.

This program doesn’t only impact the girls. It changes our appreciation for running and cycling. It reminds us that we are all here because in some way sports makes us better people. It teaches us lessons about dedication, resilience and the importance of community.

Can you tell us a story of how GOTR changed one of the athletes life?

I believe one of the biggest impacts GOTR has is community. I received a thank you card from one of the girls the other day that said “this was an amazing experience, I’m not really that social but GOTR helped me with that.” I think a lot of the girls that go through this program feeling the same way.

Thinking back on my team, we had two girls that met and both really loved running. One day they came to practice and told me they’d had their Dads take them for a run together over the weekend. The program was making it home and changing families which I thought was really incredible.

Another one of the girls on my team was having a really tough time. She was rebellious, a bully, almost never ran and tried hard not to smile. I spent a lot of time walking around the track with her, always holding her hand. Like I said, we really focused on team building so every day she was getting positive reinforcement from the other girls on the team. They were complimenting her and cheering her on. I remember this one exercise where the other girls traced a picture of her body on butcher paper.

She said to me, “I am beautiful”. And that changed everything.

What are ways that individuals can get involved with their own local GOTR chapter?

GOTR is a national organization with chapters all over the country, Getting involved beyond donating is really easy to do. I’d recommend finding out when the next 5k race is and volunteering either as a running buddy or with race support. Coaching a team is an incredible experience. If none of the schools near you have a team work with your local chapter to get one started. Last year our associate board raised enough money to launch a new program at the middle school across the street from my house and one of my colleagues just got a program going at her daughter’s school. It’s really as easy as that.

How does the organization operate? Is it all volunteer-based?

GOTR of the Bay Area is hugely dependent on their volunteer base who support through coaching teams, partnering with the girls during the 5k and supporting fundraisers throughout the year. We have four full time staff who work to ensure the program continues to serve 1,750 girls each year and fundraise to provide scholarships to 90% of the participants.

What is your own goal for the Bay Area Chapter long term?

That’s a great question. This year our goal as an associate board was to focus on community building. Fundraising is really important but the success of GOTR is dependent on the strength of the community we are able to build around it. That’s why we wanted to work with Strava. I think what’s so cool about Strava is you’ve built really strong communities around two sports that are historically really individual (running and cycling). My Strava community gets me out on early morning rides and pushes me to go faster on every run. It’s that same sense of community that’s going to enable GOTR to serve more young girls each year.

Don’t live in the Bay Area and want to get involved? Check to see if there is a local Girls on the Run Chapter here.