This After-School Running Program for Girls Is Expanding to 20 More Philly Locations

Girls On The Run Philadelphia received $20,000 from the Rite Aid Foundation to cover the costs of 20 additional sites over the next two years.

girls on the run

Girls on the Run Philadelphia is expanding to 20 more locations, which means even more girls can run the gratifying 5K at the end of the program. / Photograph courtesy Girls on the Run

At Potter-Thomas Promise Academy, all of the students are eligible for free lunch. At least 40 percent come from low-income families. When the Fairhill elementary and middle school started Heart & Sole (HS), an after-school running program for sixth- through eighth-grade girls, each of the 13 participants joined because they didn’t want to go home. “Many of our students are forced to face challenges both in and outside of the classroom,” wrote Potter-Thomas second-grade teacher Arielle Evans in a letter to Girls on the Run (GOTR), the parent organization of Heart & Sole. “They must overcome the daily obstacles of life that include neighborhood violence, trauma, and poverty. School is truly their safe haven.”

At the beginning, the girls in Potter-Thomas HS didn’t get along very well. They couldn’t run for even five straight minutes at a time, and the neighborhood distractions weren’t helping their camaraderie or their concentration. As they moved through the 10-week program, though, the group dynamics changed. One girl even took on the responsibility of leading the warm-ups. By the time the 10 remaining girls ran the season-ending 5K at the Navy Yard, their confidence was as evident as their smiles. A girl who’d been shot in her neighborhood in 2016 was able to complete the race with a bullet in her leg, her mother running alongside her. As Evans writes, “I had never seen her so excited and happy.”

It’s this kind of story that highlights the importance of fitness programs like GOTR and HS — nationwide initiatives for girls from third to fifth grade and sixth through eighth, respectively. They’re particularly necessary in Pennsylvania, where the obesity rate for 10- to 17-year-olds ranks 14th in the nation. (Philly has had some luck reducing the childhood obesity rate over the years, but it’s still higher than the statewide average.) Plus, most of the girls in the Philly GOTR programs come from households with incomes of less than $29,000, and about 70 percent receive financial assistance for the $175 registration fee. “Many of these girls have never had positive role models,” says Colleen Kelly Howard, the executive director of GOTR Philadelphia.

Now, a new grant will help the program reach even more girls. The Rite Aid Foundation’s KidCents initiative has given GOTR Philadelphia $20,000 to pay for scholarships and expand to 20 additional sites over the next two years. (The programs currently exist at about 80 area schools and community centers, although some run in just spring or fall.) All of the funds came from Rite Aid customers who chose to round up their purchases to the next dollar. (Look, that extra money actually goes somewhere!)

The five new sites launching in the spring GOTR season, which kicked off yesterday, are:

The volunteer coaches at all the schools involved run mandatory 90-minute practices twice a week for 10 weeks They tend to focus on themed activities rather than standard drills. For instance, one of the lessons, which deals with positive self-talk, involves making a “Negative Nellie” out of a shoebox with a hole cut for a mouth. The girls then each write down negative thoughts they might have had, like I’m bad at running, on notecards. Lined up 50 yards from Negative Nellie, they run down and put their negative notecards in the box, high five a coach, and run back.

In another warm-up game, dedicated to the concept of gratitude, the coaches set up a piece of poster board and markers in the areas where the girls do their laps. Every time they do a lap, they write down something they’re grateful for. At the end of practice, the group talks about what’s important to them, a discussion that eventually leads to a community impact project like cleaning up the schoolyard. One team even ran a GOTR lesson for the ladies at a local women’s shelter. “We’re teaching them these skills that they’ll be able to translate outside of GOTR,” Howard says. “Coaches will say, ‘Tell us how you use these skills at home, at school.’”

At the end of the program, all the Philly GOTR and HS groups come together to run a 5K at the Navy Yard. (This year’s race is June 2nd.) Some have racing experience and plan to use the 5K as a tune-up while others have never been on a sports team before. No matter the background, though, they all have the same goal: finish the race.

How to Get Involved With GOTR/HS

  • Become a volunteer coach. Note: You don’t have to have experience running or coaching. GOTR Philadelphia is specifically looking for coaches in Society Hill, Queen Village, and Center City.
  • Sign up to become a running buddy. Each of the girls needs someone to run the 5K with, whether it’s a coach, a parent, or a running buddy. Note: All these folks do need to pass a background check.
  • Sign up to work the 5K. If you’re not interested in running the race but still want to help out with things like registration and T-shirt pick-up, there’s spots for that, too.
  • Donate to a GOTR coach’s fundraiser. Beckett Life Center coach Olivia Messina is trying to buy all the girls on her team a pair of running shoes and a sports bra. (Most of them are running in Converse, which, while comfortable, aren’t the best for sprinting around.)

Visit to sign up for volunteer opportunities.

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