Generating More Girl Power

Girls on the Run builds not only healthy habits for body and mind but leadership skills and a critical sense of confidence and belonging
Girls on the Run ©Photo by Adam Muller

©Photo above by Adam Muller

2022 Non Profit of the Year: Girls on the Run

Jennie Spears had strict orders: “You have to sign me up the first day,” Spears remembers her daughter, Makayla, urging her, “because it always fills up.”

Makayla had tried gymnastics, soccer, baseball—each one time. Then in third grade, she found her place with Girls on the Run Hampton Roads, a 10-week program with a structured curriculum created to build healthy habits for body and mind.

In three months, Makayla blossomed. “She wasn’t afraid to stand out and be a leader,” Spears says.

On her first day, Makayla wasn’t a runner. She didn’t know how vital water and healthy foods are to energizing her body. She learned week by week. At the end, she crossed the Girls on the Run (GOTR) 5K finish line along with hundreds of girls and their coaches. The goal: Complete the course. Run, walk, skip. It didn’t matter. Along the way, people held signs and cheered.

Meeting twice a week in preparation, Makayla’s team spent 90 minutes together after school. They ran and played games. Through the activities and group discussions, the coaches taught interpersonal skills based on 20 lesson plans. Makayla’s best memory was running around with a friend, pretending to be police officers and pulling over teammates as if they were speeding. Silly fun fueling smiles.

She also mastered life lessons—such as “how to stop and take a breather and think about things instead of yelling at people; how to calm down and how to talk to people nicely.”

“I learned ways to empower myself,” the now seventh grader concludes.

girls on the run

Growing Girls
Makayla’s team was in Virginia Beach. That was the case for most teams when Ellen Carver joined Girls on the Run eight years ago. Or they were in Norfolk, with just a few in Suffolk and Chesapeake and on the Peninsula. As the new executive director, Carver saw an opportunity.

She was previously a leader in education and fundraising in Pennsylvania, D.C. and Virginia. Her own education includes degrees from Virginia Beach’s First Colonial High School and Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s college. The one school she humbly doesn’t mention during an interview: Massachusetts’s Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she earned a master’s in education, administration/counseling.

Also preparing Carver for her job: Growing up one of six daughters: “I’m all about girl power,” Carver says. In her new role, she set out to generate more.

“The program was such a home run” she says. “I just really wanted to get it in more schools and more community parks and more community centers.”
Diversifying the board of directors, by adding representation from different areas of Coastal Virginia and Western Tidewater, was the first step. She expanded the board from 12 members to 20.

She then solicited more funding through grants and corporate sponsorships and recruited additional volunteers. Name recognition grew beyond the Southside through the three efforts. So did the organization’s reach—from 45 sites to 70 and from 1,200 girls a year to 1,850 before the start of the pandemic.

girls on the run

Coaching Challenges
Being a national organization helped Girls on the Run in March 2020 and after, Carver says. Chapters in Seattle were hit with the threat of COVID-19 first and started using Zoom. Others across the country, including GOTR Hampton Roads, followed their lead. Government PPP loans helped with making payroll, and when schools stayed closed or only partially opened longer than anyone could have imagined, Carver and her staff suggested new practice locations.

The GOTR staff also became coaches—helping to replace some teacher coaches, who pre-pandemic made up about 80% of the volunteers. (Now they’re 50%.) That’s when Carver had her best day on the job. One girl—who had been in a foster care program and had faced other personal traumas Carver says are “too horrific to repeat”—stood to read a letter to her team: “You helped me when I was down,” the girl read in part. “Other people looked at me and called me a freak and fat, ugly and worse, they’ve called me a faggot. It hurt me so bad. But when I was crying, I knew where to go. My home is Girls on the Run. I can be myself and be accepted.”

The girl had had a bad day with the team earlier and sort of turned her back on them, Carver shares. “And then she comes and reads that on a crappy, polluted blacktop in inner-city Norfolk,” she says. “That’s why I love my job.”

girls on the run

Training For 2023
Statistics say participants and volunteers love Girls on the Run as well. The Hampton Roads office uses net promoter scores independently figured from surveys. A score of 4 is considered the gold standard, signifying that 40% or more of past participants recommend an organization or company. Carver reports her organization’s scores are much higher, translating to 86% of parents saying they’d re-enroll their daughter. Coaches are at 80%.

Hoping to grow participation up to 2,500 girls annually and requiring at least three volunteers per 15-girl team, Girls on the Run needs a little more than 500 volunteers. They’re currently at around 2,000 girls and 371 volunteers.

“In January, we’ll start posting [sign-ups for] the teams for the spring,” Carver says. “We’ll also start training and recruiting new volunteers. What we hope will come…is new volunteers.”

The coaches’ impact is measurable beyond net promoter scores. Mikayla, the girl who begged her mom to sign her up for Girls on the Run before spots filled up, came back for five more 5K training sessions. Now she runs track in middle school and talks up the group to anyone who asks.
“Girls on the Run teaches you that you have the potential to do anything,” she says. “Once you learn that, you will be successful in life. People should support that so we can grow.”

Girls on the Run: How They Make a Difference
• Volunteer coaches meet with teams of 15 girls. The teams are divided into two groups—grades third through fifth and grades sixth through eighth.
• Teams meet twice a week for 90 minutes for 10 weeks.
• Coaches follow a curriculum that guides girls in developing physically and emotionally.
• Each team proposes and executes a community service project.
• All teams gather for a fun 5K at the end of their 10-week session. Two sessions, fall and spring, are held each year.
• Financial aid is available.

What You Can Do to Help
Volunteer to be a coach for a spring Girls on the Run team. Supporters are also welcome to watch the Girls on the Run 5K Sunday, December 11, at 9 a.m. at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News.

Learn more at

Kristen De Deyn Kirk
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