Highlands’ Girls on the Run program fuels fitness, builds character

Highlands’ Girls on the Run program fuels fitness, builds character

When Highlands fourth grader Kendall Walter runs laps around the playground after school, she hums tunes from the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.”

“That Lin-Manuel Miranda really keeps me going,” said Kendall, a second-year participant in the elementary school’s Girls on the Run (GOTR) program.

Hosted in part by the University of Pittsburgh, the effort aims to boost fitness but also teach the girls to be good sports.

“We build self-esteem and empowerment in young girls as they develop into young ladies,” said Cara Kelly, student assistance program liaison through Pitt’s MAPS (Maximizing Adolescent Potentials) program.

“We want to form that rapport outside of academics so they look to us as mentors.”

Founded in 1996 in North Carolina, Girls on the Run grew into an international nonprofit by 2000. Now, it serves more than 200,000 youngsters each year.

There are Girls on the Run councils in all 50 states.

Girls of all abilities learn to embrace their inner strength and character and to make connections with others, said Highlands Elementary School counselor Angela Boyer, who collaborated with Kelly to identify the need for the program in the district.

This is the third year for the fitness fundamentals, which are available to students in third through fifth grades.

Boyer said the physical activity-based development program inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident.

The curriculum, she said, encourages girls to value teamwork and recognize how they can shape the world at large.

With 25 students enrolled this year, the program has quadrupled in size since its inception at Highlands.

Twice a week throughout spring, they meet at the school playground for conditioning.

“We stretch and set goals and rock out to a jammin’ playlist,” Kelly said.

The warmups lead to a “can-do” attitude for the program’s culmination, which is a 5K run at The Waterfront in Homestead.

“To be able to see the growth is amazing,” Kelly said. “To see how proud of themselves they are is amazing.”

For 10-year-old Kendall, running has become fun. But the program has taught her more than athletics.

“We learn to be a better person,” she said. “They want us to have an attitude to be thankful for stuff.”

Fourth grader Fiona Zewe participated in the program last year. She said she liked meeting new friends outside of her typical pastimes.

“I got to interact with people that are in different grades that I really probably wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.

Classmate Mackenzie Klein said she likes seeing the gradual improvement in her athleticism.

“You do more and more each time. And you don’t really get tired if you think of positive things in your head,” the 10-year-old said.

Volunteer coaches, such as teachers Lauralee Milberger and Victoria Nania, suit up in their fitness attire and cheer the kids on.

At each practice, they use clever tactics to encourage the girls to keep going. Teachers mark one colorful letter on the students’ arms for each lap completed – until a secret message is revealed.

On Tuesday, the message spelled out “You are amazing and awesome.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 724-226-7726, tpanizzi@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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