A Race for Self-Esteem

The national nonprofit Girls on the Run inspires tweens and teens to be active and healthy. Local chapters have made a difference for thousands of young women.

On June 5, more than 750 girls will lace up their sneakers, pin a number to their T-shirts, and hit the pavement at American University, embarking on a 5K run. For many, it’ll be their first time running a timed event. And for all of them, it’s the culmination of months of hard work.

Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit founded in 1996, helps girls ages 8 to 13 learn about personal fitness, build self-esteem, and establish camaraderie with their peers. Each team, made up of 8 to 15 girls, trains together twice a week for 12 weeks in the fall and spring. They’re led by two trained coaches, who, in addition to leading workouts, provide life-skills guidance and assist the girls with a community-service project of their choice.

The DC chapter, one of more than 170 nationwide, was started in the fall of 2006, with a 13-girl team in the District’s Ward 3. This spring, there’ll be teams from all eight wards.

“We’re serving a greater diversity of girls, especially in areas where obesity and poverty rates are higher,” says Betsy Hammond-Chambers, executive director of the DC chapter. Ward 3, she says, has the most teams, but Wards 7 and 8 saw the most growth last season.

“It’s important to us to reach out to areas where there aren’t really safe places for girls to be active and learn about healthy living,” she says.

Teams are organized through the DC Public Schools system. Hammond-Chambers meets with DCPS regularly to identify schools that would benefit most from the program. Each school—or “site”—can have one or more teams, depending on demand. This season, 27 sites are returning to the program and 11 are participating for the first time.

Hammond-Chambers, who started running about six years ago, wanted her daughters to learn to lead active lives. She was familiar with Girls on the Run, but her daughters’ school didn’t have the program. In 2008, she decided to start a team and coach it herself. After about a year, the DC chapter hired her to work for the program full-time. Her two daughters, now ages 8 and 11, are both still participating.

Girls on the Run relies on its network of 138 volunteer coaches, who go through formal training before the season begins. The organization recruits largely through word of mouth—“People hear about it, and they call us,” says Hammond-Chambers—but often reaches out to local universities to inspire women to get involved.

According to Hammond-Chambers, coaches can benefit just as much as the girls enrolled in the program: “The target audience is of course the girls, but it goes beyond that. We touch their parents, their teachers, all the volunteers.”

This season, national founder Molly Baker will attend the 5K race at American University, and the organization anticipates a need for more than 150 race-day volunteers. The day is meant as a celebration, complete with face painting and other fun activities. Although the event is timed, it’s not intended to inspire competition among the girls or different teams.

Says Hammond-Chambers: “Rather than getting girls to compete against each other, it’s about individual goal-setting and self-esteem.”

Want to get involved? Here’s a list of local Girls on the Run chapters:
• DC: Betsy Hammond-Chambers (202-258-7876;
• Montgomery County: Elizabeth McGlynn (301-792-2005;
• Northern Virginia: Catherine Keightley (703-273-3153;
• Prince George’s County: Kenya Welch (202-321-4403)
• Howard County: Dianne Martin (410-627-8957;
• Greater Chesapeake: Angela Edwards (443-454-9274;

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Well+Being on Twitter

More >> Health | Top Doctors | Well+Being Blog   

Get Our Health Newsletter

How to stay fit, eat smart, and live well in Washington.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.