Girls on the Run: The Program & 5k that Empowers Girls to Chase Their Dreams

Rate this Article:
Girls on the Run teaches young ladies the skills needed to crush goal and enjoy running. Girls on the Run: The Program & 5k that Empowers Girls to Chase Their Dreams

The act of running is one of the most empowering physical activities. Runners learn to overcome obstacles, appreciate their bodies and become strong both physically and mentally. For young girls, running allows them to know that they can do anything they put their minds—and legs—to. And the non-profit Girls on the Run is making sure girls are taught exactly this.

With its humble roots planted in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996, Girls on the Run (GOTR) is an organization that helps young ladies learn their potential while also teaching them to “pursue her dream.” This is done by using running as the tool to build up their fitness levels, confidence, social skills, and self-love. Think of it as a running camp that combines physical workouts with life skills that also strengthens the psyche. It consists of a 10-week program, where the girls meet twice a week in small teams. At the end of the program, the girls participate in a 5k race, a goal that is used to show them that they can achieve their dreams.

“Completing the 5K gives the girls a tangible understanding of the confidence that comes through accomplishment as well as a framework for setting and achieving life goals,” Donna York, Executive Director GOTR of Central NJ told RunnerClick. “Crossing the finish line is a defining moment when the girls realize that even the seemingly impossible is possible.”

Photo: Girls on the Run of Central NJ | Facebook

The non-profit has since branched out to expand across all 50 states with more than 200 councils. In 2015, it included more than 185,000 girls and has had more than 350 5ks across the U.S. This includes the GOTR of Central New Jersey, which was established in Jan. 2001, that recently had two 5k events. One of those finishers was 10-year-old Leah Petzold who completed the 10-week program this spring.

“I learned that I am a good runner and that I can complete a race by pushing myself all while having fun,” she said. “I am  capable of anything.”

What the Girls Learn

The program, like the one Petzold was part of, is curriculum based. The after-school program caters to those from third to fifth grade, as well as those who are in sixth to eighth grade (GOTR also offers a summer camp program).

“There are three components to each lesson and each lesson covers a different topic,” York said. This consists of “Getting on Board,” which is an intro to that week’s topic with the aim to engage the girls in a discussion about the topic. Then comes the “Warm Up” that gets the bodies moving while continuing learning about the topic. Then comes the actual workout, which consists of running laps and other activities.

“I learned about bullying, and how to help not get bullied,” Leah said. “Everyone is different in their own way.”

Coaches lead the lessons and runs, which are typically volunteers near that specific GOTR chapter. “Anyone that has a passion for changing the lives of young girls can be a coach,” York said. “You DO NOT need to be a runner.”

All that is needed is a CPR and First Aid certification, as well as a one-day training after completing the online application. Background checks are done to ensure safety for the girls.

Making Exercise Social and Fun

Coaches are responsible for teaching the girls how to understand themselves, the value of teamwork, and how they can impact the world. They are taught how to enjoy the sport through these interactive lessons and running games.

“It is a good way to get exercise and have fun with my friends who help to push you,” Leah said.

The girls become running buddies over the course of the program, which increases their social skills and the value of relationships.

Girls at a shoe drive for SOLES4SOULS. Photo: Girls on the Run of Central NJ | Facebook

“Girls on the Run is great for these young girls because it is an outlet for them to do something with friends and also show them that running is a great source of exercise and can be fun,” Leah’s mom Laura Crisitello Petzold, who is also a runner, said.

Along with making exercise fun, the girls learn to give back by doing community service.

“One site organized a Shoe Drive, and are collecting new and gently used shoes to help benefit those less fortunate than us, and those who would like to run, but don’t have adequate footwear,” York said.

The shoes are being donated to SOLES4SOULS, a nonprofit that provides footwear to those in need during times of disaster, and to those around the world to help brings relief to developing nations around the globe and help lift people out of poverty. Other charitable works include donating to animal shelters and sending care packages to female U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Girls On The Run 5k

But the biggest fundraiser is the chapter’s 5k races (with proceeds used for GOTR’s scholarship program). All of the training and skills learn leads up to the big race day for the girls. This gives them a tangible goal to reach out to show them that no dream is too big to chase after.

The 5ks are also available to the public, so anyone can join. The Girls on the Run 5ks include anywhere from 1400 to 1800 participants. For the Central NJ chapter, this included the Fare Haven 5k on June 3 and the Somerville 5k on June 10.

Parents who share the passion for running tend to get in the action. “I ran with Leah because I felt it was a way to get her to do it and show her she can do it,” Petzold said. “I enjoyed running with her very much, and felt like it was a bonding experience.”

Leah and Laura Petzold at the race. Photo: Laura Petzold.

The race might be the event that shows the little ladies that all their hard work paid off, but it’s the program itself that gives them to tools to take on any challenge life throws their way.

“I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it,” Leah said.


  1. Girls on the Run, What We Do, Organization website
  2. Girls on the Run, Who We Are, Organization website
  3. soles4souls, About Us, Organization website
  4. Girls on the Run, 3rd - 5th Grade Program, Organization website