Girls on the Run: Running Strong in Pennsylvania’s Capital Area for 10 Years!

By Gillian Byerly

Girls on the Run is a non-profit organization which provides girls with a space to build important relationships with peers and a trusted adult, to share their thoughts and feelings, and to improve their physical health. Founded in 1996 with 13 girls, the organization has grown over the past 24 years to serve more than 200,000 girls each year nationwide, with a presence in all 50 states. In Pennsylvania there are 11 chapters or “councils” serving more than 20,000 girls each year. Locally at GOTR Capital Area, over 2,000 girls participate in Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, Lebanon, Franklin, and Adams Counties each year. We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident and we envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.

While many assume that we are a running program, GOTR is so much more. Small teams of girls meet twice a week for 10 weeks and are guided in conversation by trained adult coaches who serve as mentors. The structured, evidence-based curriculum introduces girls to critically important social and emotional skills—the girls will develop a robust “toolkit” which includes dealing with peer pressure, identifying and dealing with emotions, and understanding friendship. These skills are discussed and practiced in each lesson. Running is integrated creatively to teach girls about setting and accomplishing high, yet realistic, goals.

We are dedicated to accessibility and inclusivity. Girls of all abilities and socio-economic backgrounds can participate and share a safe and brave space to form deep connections with their teammates and coaches.

Each year, we provide more than $200,000 in scholarships locally to ensure every girl can participate regardless of income. Girls on the Run provides sneakers, snacks, running gear, and more to any girl in need. This funding comes from individual donors, local businesses, foundations, and community groups as well as our charity athletes known as “SoleMates,” a program sponsored by Fleet Feet.

A panorama of the crowd at Harrisburg Area Community College for the 2019 GOTR 5K

Each spring and fall, the program culminates with a 5K. Crossing the finish line is when each girl is connected to a sense of confidence that only comes with accomplishment. It’s not about how fast they finish, but how far they have come in their journey. For some, even getting to the start line is defying expectations. Many have overcome tremendous obstacles and significant limitations. Girls like Jossy. Her parents were told she might never walk, let alone run. Yet Jossy wanted to do GOTR—she really wanted a red tutu! Jossy has club feet, a chromosome disorder and autism. She completed her first 5K in one hour, seven minutes with her Mom Kelli. Kelli couldn’t believe they had done it.

“The doctors would have laughed at us if we told them we were doing a 5K,” she said. “It’s amazing to witness your child accomplish something you were told would never be possible.” This is what Girls on the Run calls “Limitless Potential” and we believe every girl has the power and potential to accomplish big things.

Jossy and her mom
When Jossy had major surgery last year, the GOTR sister councils across the country mobilized to collect paper “cookies,” each with a a picture and inspiring message. More than 2,000 cookies arrived!

Each girl runs with an adult Running Buddy. Additional volunteers with pink satin capes and cow bells—our Spirit Runners—run the course to provide a power boost to any girl who looks like she needs some support, or has outrun her Running Buddy! Their job is also to run in with the last runner. Last spring, Mel taught us all a lesson. Mel has Down Syndrome. Running with her dad, she never gave up. She rounded the last corner into the finish straightaway, surrounded by Spirit Runners and other girls from her team, and a loud cheer from the crowd. The PA State Police cadets who were volunteering asked if they could also run her in. There were no dry eyes as Mel crossed the finish line with a crowd of 30 people around her, her medal placed around her neck, the cheers of the crowd ringing in her ears. She may have been the last girl to cross the finish line that day, but that didn’t diminish her accomplishment. We measure effort, courage, resilience, and determination and Mel won in all categories.

This is Mel with her police escort to the finish line.

GOTR is important because by age six, girls identify boys as smarter than they are. Parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my son gifted” than “Is my daughter gifted.” By age nine, girls’ self-confidence peaks and then begins a steep fall throughout adolescence. Girls drop out of activities they used to love, stop raising their hand in class, and focus on “fitting in.” Girls on the Run teaches them it’s okay to stand out.  By middle school, girls outperform boys in math and science, but perceive their skills as inferior, so they don’t go on to study these subjects at a higher level. The GOTR program serves as a bridge by providing somewhere girls can celebrate who they truly are, grow in self-awareness and confidence, and learn to support and encourage each other as they work toward a shared goal.

With the announcement that all schools would remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, our program was canceled. All families were provided with refund options. We know our families were all greatly impacted by the spread of the coronavirus. We also know our program is even more important now than before.

Joe Church at the Fall 2019 GOTR event. ‘SoleMate of the Year’ award is named after his late wife, Eileen Church, who was a great supporter of Girls on the Run.

During this time, we provided access to GOTR At Home on-demand videos and lessons, GOTR Connect, a weekly check-in for teams with their coaches, and a digital campaign, #GOTRGotYourBack, offering physical health tips and activities available to everyone on social media. The goal was to keep our families and community moving forward and know they can live joyful, healthy, and confident lives, even during a pandemic.

At the end of May, all 11 councils in Pennsylvania collaborated on a statewide virtual event—the GOTR PA 5K Your Way. All 800 participants sent a powerful message that we might be stuck at home but we can still move forward together as a community and support and encourage each other by posting our efforts on social media.

As we move into summer and look ahead to fall, the trauma informed work of GOTR and our focus on the emotional health of our girls will remain in sharp focus. We recognize the responsibility we have to continue to provide a safe and healthy community and a way for our girls to heal from this experience.

Our program is even more important now than before. Our youth are experiencing a significant disruption to their sense of connection and community and grieving the loss of access to the relationships, interactions, and activities they have traditionally experienced as part of their daily routines. Girls on the Run provides support and gives them space and permission to feel their feelings, along with helping develop the tools they need to process these emotions in a healthy way.

We will be there for our girls with a program in the fall. But we need the help of our community. Girls on the Run Capital Area must bridge a funding gap from losing our biggest program season and 5K, both of which generate critical revenue to support the needs of our participating girls, providing scholarships to ensure every girl can participate, regardless of income.

Please consider getting involved in some way. Share our message widely on Facebook, volunteer at a future event, become a coach and work with our girls to inspire and support them. Raise money as a GOTR SoleMate. Let’s send a powerful message to our girls about belonging, determination, resilience, and hope.

This November, we are introducing a new event—a 5K relay for teams of up to four people. Each team will have a goal to raise $500 to support our girls. Each runner will wear a bib with the name of one of the girls in our program. More information will be be coming soon! Join us and #RunForHer.

Gillian “Gilly” Byerly  is the Executive Director of Girls on the Run Capital Area. Since taking the organization’s lead in 2014, the number of participating girls, schools and volunteers has significantly increased. GOTR Capital Area has expanded from Cumberland and Dauphin counties to also include Perry, Adams, Franklin and part of Lebanon Counties and serves 2,000 girls each year. Girls on the Run includes programming for elementary and middle school girls, and a Junior Coach program for high school girls.

Gillian is a native of England who spent 10 years traveling and working in Southeast Asia, before returning to the University of London in 2003 to complete a Master’s in Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. In 2006, after 2 years teaching in Beijing, Gilly came to the US. She became a US citizen in 2016 and lives in Camp Hill with her two children.

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