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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)


WORCESTER - At lunchtime, the lobby of Dr. Arthur F. Sullivan Middle School fills with a swarm of girls and boys walking into the cafeteria. The walls are plastered with motivational sayings, student artwork and plaques showcasing student achievements.

But at the end of the school day, the pace for 15 of the school's female students picks up considerably, as they pursue achievements of a different sort and extend their motivation through a new school program.

Girls on the Run is an after-school running club and part of a national initiative that incorporates physical activity with social and emotional exercises. Sullivan has one of the first GOTR teams in the Worcester Public Schools along with Elm Park Community School.

Twice a week for an hour and a half in the gymnasium, the girls run laps, do pushups and squats, and gather in a classroom to build on their emotional strength and confidence.

"The most common misconception is that this is a running club. It's not," GOTR Worcester County Director Karen Spencer said. "It goes beyond the physical act of running to teach girls something even more important. It is a club that addresses the social and emotional component of growing up."

During the 10-week program, the girls are introduced each meeting to a new lesson called the Big Idea, which ranges from issues such as "It's important to know who we are" to projects such as community involvement.

Emphasizing independence, the coaches are not allowed to influence the girls' ideas on many of the topics, but instead are there as motivators and mentors. They let the girls take charge of how they want to influence their community.

Sullivan Middle School follows a curriculum called Heart and Sole and designed for girls in sixth to eighth grades. It is a new physical activity-based, positive youth development program.

"Heart and Sole focuses on how to give back to your community every day on your own. It stresses the small things," Ms. Spencer added.

The GOTR participants build up their physical endurance each week, starting with running for 15 minutes and gradually increasing the time in subsequent weeks. They also compile "debrief" journals at the end of their activities. For the Big Ideas, the runners discuss what the concept means, write down their thoughts after a lap, and agree and disagree.

Sullivan Principal Dr. Josephine Robertson stresses that social development contributes to a teenager's readiness to learn and grow. GOTR strives to do just that, providing insights into empathy and what it means to be part of a community.

Ms. Spencer says many young girls don't know how to express their feelings with their friends and classmates, and they struggle with getting their point across. "GOTR teaches them how to deal with emotion, how to feel your feelings," she explains.

Sullivan's GOTR chapter was a big hit despite only starting in September. Brittany Henderson, Sullivan's behavioral health provider, serves as a coach and advocate for the new team. She admits that she was blown away after all the 15 slots filled up only two days after registrations were sent out.

This trend is consistent with the increasing popularity of GOTR around Worcester County. It started with just four teams in Uxbridge in 2014. In less than two years, it has "spread like wildfire," according to Ms. Spencer, who she hopes to reach more girls through this program. GOTR has operated in other parts of the United States since 1996.

GOTR alum Margeaux Prinster has been involved with the organization since age three and has witnessed its rapid expansion. She participated as a young girl in Colorado, then becoming a coach in Indiana. Currently she works with GOTR in Worcester as a graduate student at Clark University.

Ms. Prinster is confident that this program will make a difference at Sullivan because it creates a safe space for girls to talk about issues that affect them. The GOTR curriculum directly addresses body image, bullying, gossiping, and other issues prevalent in these girls' lives.

"The community of girls that GOTR fosters within schools is so powerful," Ms. Prinster said.

Funding plays a huge role in the success of GOTR, she added. "You can have the greatest program in the world, but without funding, it'll never make the change it was designed to."

Sullivan Middle School received a grant from United Way of Central Massachusetts Women's Initiative to honor the empowerment of girls through GOTR. Henderson sees first hand the need for additional behavioral health services that will positively impact young girls.

"This grant provides funding for a variety of things such as individual entry fees, sneakers for all the girls, T-shirts, snacks, but most importantly, after-school bus transportation," she says. "That is the biggest barrier to after-school programming, so without their funding, we would not be able to run this program," says Henderson.

On Sunday, Dec. 4, the girls from Sullivan ran a celebratory 5-kilometer race to culminate a term of hard work and new achievement.

"Of all the places I've lived and been involved with Girls on the Run, Worcester needs it the most," Prinster said.


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January 6, 2017


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