So far this millennium, obesity is up 29 percent and suicides have tripled for American girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Robyn Cutler couldn't stand still and watch another generation of girls fall. The avid runner saw that in their formative years, another generation was preparing to take a wrong turn on social media  — even as a focus on state testing left teachers with less time to prepare girls for the emotional rigors of life.

So, Cutler imported the national Girls on the Run program to create safe places for local schoolgirls to "get their heads on straight." The confidence-boosting program, which uses exercise to forge relationships with mentors and peers, turned 12 this year.

But Cutler didn't slow down to celebrate. She'd been noticing the distance widening between haves and have-nots in her program; girls in need seemed to be finishing further behind, if at all. As the tone in America became coarser over the past two years, she said, the disadvantages of poorer girls — older shoes, missing socks, no money for bras or deodorant — became fodder for girls who'd become more apt than ever to judge.

"What we’ve found with our girls is the playing field isn’t always equal," said Cutler, who raised a little more this year to get the neediest girls each a bag of running essentials.

These Adelaide bags, named after a girl who's become the symbol of the national youth empowerment program, will support a couple dozen of the 2,200 local girls participating this year in Cutler's program, which is one of 31 sharing $43,750 in grants from the Millennium Fund for Children.

Started in 1999 when the Akron Beacon Journal asked donors to give their last hour of pay in the 20th century, the Akron Community Foundation has amassed $1 million in the fund while handing out $757,000 in small grants to local programs. With the little bit of help, they're making a big difference in children's lives.

Help from mentors

In the fall and spring for 10 weeks at a time, a couple thousand girls meet for 75 minutes after school with teachers and mentors called "coaches" in the Girls on the Run program. Six hundred people volunteer in Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage and Summit counties.

The structured courses help girls grow with the guidance of caring adult women. An outreach component introduces them to the reciprocal power of giving by collecting blankets for Akron Children's Hospital, donations for the Ronald McDonald house or washing cars in Rootstown to help ACCESS Inc., a women's shelter.

Every lesson is all about being active.

Groups of about eight to 15 girls figuratively and literally run through the program’s lessons. Girls might read a social media post or mock text message then run laps to let the words settle as they breathe deep and find their stride, all in a safe space where they can sweat without a care.

After a few laps, they engage each other and a coach with a preset question, exploring a wide range of formative topics (like healthy eating, honesty, gratitude, gossip, bullying, peer pressure and more). Was the message healthy? Do I get and give healthy messages? What exactly is healthy?

“I’m worried I’m not beautiful enough,” a girl told Katie Fife. “Oh, honey, you’re 10. It’s OK,” the coach replied.

Fife is a three-year gifted education teacher and first-year “coach” at Sam Salem elementary in Akron, where she works with grades 3, 4 and 5 during the day. Rarely does she get the opportunity to engage these preadolescents at a time of great uncertainty and change, especially for girls who can be marginalized for following societal cues.

“We get to see this whole other side of the girls,” said Fife, who sweats with two colleagues and the 20 girls they coach. “We don’t always have the time as teachers to delve into social/emotional lessons."

“It’s rough,” said Cutler. “And social/emotional health is something that is missing for our young women at so many levels. I believe there is some science to this; if children are not socially and emotionally healthy, their ability to go beyond is somewhat limited.”

Pride, strength

Cutler said the Girls on the Run focus is on pride, integrity and strength “to impact and empower girls so that they are able to be the best version of themselves as they go from childhood into adolescence and beyond.”

Fife, a site sponsor, found the program on Instagram while browsing social media for fitness inspiration. Since last summer, she'd shed 165 pounds through healthy choices, better eating and “falling in love with running.” She said she’s always loved herself, even at 345 pounds. Now, she can love the world.

“I just feel like more of the world is accessible to me now. And that’s powerful,” said Fife. “When I found the program on social media, I was like, ‘Wow. I wish something like this existed when I was in third, fourth, fifth grade.”

The program, which costs $165 per student with help for low-income participants, ends with a 5K run in November and May. The next offering begins in March with the noncompetitive race scheduled for May at the University of Akron. Some 1,500 girls, plus their friends and families, are expected to run for brighter, stronger futures.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.