As group of young girls sat in a circle outside Indian Fields Elementary School last week, they discussed various elements of bullying and the harm it can cause. Shortly thereafter, the girls were on their feet doing calisthenics.
The odd mix of activities are part of a program at the school that not only builds self-esteem, but also gets the girls ready to participate in a 5-K run. The program Girls on the Run seeks to educate and empower girls at an early age with the goal of preventing the display of at-risk activities, according to the group's web site. Those activities include substance and alcohol use, eating disorders, sedentary lifestyle, depression, and run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
"Our main goal is to teach the girls how to be healthy and active on a daily basis," said trainer Kati Petrikonis. "We also want to teach them to be a good person and to be kind to others."
The girls meet twice each week, going through drills on various topics before running about two miles around the school to build their endurance. After about five weeks of training, the girls are ready to take on a 5-K run to be held at the school on Thursday, weather permitting.
"I'm ready to do it, because I'm used to doing a lot of walking with my mom to different stores," said fifth-grader Vasudha Srinivasan. "I like this program because we get to exercise and have fun while we spend time running."
In addition to building their fitness, students in the program said the life lessons have given them valuable tools as they progress through school.
"Teaching us to be a 'Girl on the Run' means never being mean, don't be a bully, don't gossip, don't be rude, and help people," said fourth-grader Cassandra Vega. "I did a 5-K and I think I did good because of 'Girls on the Run' and because my family supported me. I've learned how to practice, how to run really fast and how to pace myself."
As the activities and exercises seek to empower the young girls, Petrikonis added that the lessons they take away would stay with them long after the running has stopped.
"They're learning about themselves and realizing what they're capable of," she said. "They've all improved so much since we started and I think they're impressed with how they have done. It's so important for girls at that age to be active and to come together as a team."