On I went, out of the wood, passing the man leading without knowing I was going to do so. Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, curnchslap-crunchslap, across the middle of a broad field again, rhythmically running in my greyhound effortless fashion, knowing I had won the race though it wasn't half over, won it if I wanted it, could go on for ten or fifteen or twenty miles if I had to and drop dead at the finish of it, which would be the same, in the end, as living an honest life like the governor wanted me to. -Alan Sillitoe, "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Girls on the Run

If you're in New York, you may want to consider being a running buddy for Girls on the Run Manhattan. On 5 June they have a 5k race, and volunteers are partnered with the girls (who've been training for weeks) to get across the finish line.

Or don't consider it. That's up to you.

You see, I seem to be the only person in the world that didn't have a good experience with Girls on the Run. I volunteered as a coach a few years ago, and my experience was... mixed. Okay, no, I'm going to say it: it was bad. It was a bad experience.

Let me qualify that by saying that everyone I volunteered with was amazing and dedicated. The one kid I was able to connect with was great. But the program was a huge, disappointing drain of my time.

About a year and a half ago, I found myself with some free time and decided to offer myself up to GOTR. They were expanding into a new school in Harlem that needed coaches, so I was put in immediately as a coach. I had no experience with the organization and no training. So I watched a demo movie, read the binder, and prepared to go twice a week with snacks to a school in Harlem. And while I might live in Harlem, I live in west Harlem. The school was in east Harlem - meaning it took me a solid 45 minutes each way to get there.

So, already a recipe for disaster. Two brand new coaches with no idea what they were doing trying to introduce a program into a school that also had no idea what it was all about. Things went wrong from day one - we couldn't use the space we'd been promised, we had no core group of girls, the ones that did show up were interested only in the food and then would leave when we tried to go through our programming. (Seriously. One of the girls early on asked, "Can you keep us here?" Now, I'm pretty good with kids so I knew better than to say, "No, we can't." I bluffed it. She said, "What will you do if we leave?" and then gathered her friends and said, "Let's try it. Let's get out of here.") We never even met our point-person at the school, so we were helpless to fix the situation.

By the third week, we had one girl. One girl. She was great, but she wasn't enough to justify three volunteers (we'd been given a third) spending four hours a week each in the middle of the day there. The GOTR organizers - again, all of whom were wonderful - were gracious and understanding and in agreement when we told them we thought it wasn't the best use of anyone's time and pulled the plug on that school shortly thereafter.

That was a bad experience, yes. But - and this is the part I usually keep to myself - I'm not sure I agree with GOTR's programming. I love the thought of introducing kids to running. And that's what I expected: a running program, for kids. Specifically, training for the 5k they host at the end of each year. But it's more than that; it's also a self-esteem building program. And the emphasis is less on running than it is on self-esteem (for the last 10 minutes or so of each session we were supposed to keep the girls active and incentivize them into doing whatever physical activity they wanted - but cartwheels or skipping for a few minutes doesn't prepare you for a 5k, you know?).

Our group was middle school students (the "Girls on Track" version of Girls on the Run), and the activities we were told to do did not work with these girls; they came off as hokey to our inner city kids. And - now this is me overprocessing - I felt a little weird being the white woman heading into the inner city school to tell minority kids how to feel good about themselves.

I know a lot of people who love Girls on the Run, and I respect that. I know a lot of people who've had great experiences with the program. Sadly, I'm not one of them.


  1. The format sounds great: introducing girls to running and wokring on self-esteem issues. We have similar programs in the Netherlands and most of them (not all of them) turn out to be true gems. Plus, as for those programs that turn into a fiasco, it can mostly be blamed on bad 'management' on top.

    Okay, what I'm trying to say: it seems like the school you were assigned with didn't really care and didn't give you the tools to work with. And that's a shame. Not just for you (because you obviously tried hard to make it work), but also for the girls. At least that one girl did get something out of it. That's one, right?

  2. I like the premise of GOTR, but I'm still kind of iffy on it. Although I am debating on running Detroit for GOTR.

  3. I, too, had a bad GOTR experience. Mine was actually because the group was based in a super affluent neighborhood, and the girls in their matching track suits, snobbish cliques and having about 25 in the group with 4 volunteers and a 45 minute drive each way just meant disaster. I made it out there ONCE.

  4. hi friend (waves)

    I've heard murky things about GOTR from a fundraising perspective. They're not listed in Charity Navigator, which is like a clearinghouse for accredited nonprofits, and they're not listed under the Better Business Bureau charity program, either. I'm loath to support a npo in anyway that isn't 110% transparent with its funds.

    Also... yes, it's definitely hokey to think that doing simple self-esteem boosting exercises can address the many issues that New York City's low-income, minority children face. Urgh. Very colonialist!

  5. I'm sorry your coaching experience was so awful. That said, I REALLY can't see this programming working for middle school girls. It's pretty good for the elementary school girls, but... yeah, not much older. Eek.

    However, I totally encourage people to be running buddies! I did that last season and LOVED it. It's a ton of fun, doesn't take much time, and it means so much to the girls.

  6. These are awesome, thoughtful comments. I'm glad to hear, Dawn, that you've had a good experience, and I'm also glad to hear, M, that I wasn't the only one who had a bad experience.

    One thing I didn't add to the post itself is that I was a little weirded out by the cult of personality surrounding the founder. Everyone I talked to LOVES her and says amazing things about her. She's a recovering alcoholic who turned to exercising. It's just... interesting.

  7. There is one blogger who goes on and on about GOTR - kind of makes me sick of it. Anyway, I like the idea. I did a 5K, but not as a buddy. I would like to be a buddy. But I know that a daily commitment with kids is not for me. I am all for getting kids to be active though!

  8. That age group is tough under the best of circumstances. And I'm with you on the colonialist misgivings. Believe it or not, I hadn't actually heard of GOTR, but as far as getting inner city kids (girls included, but not exclusively) to move and feel good, I think some of the Young Runner teams have got it going on. Some of the teams used to show up at the travel track meets my son used to do and those kids were focused and motivated, which I imagine is part of the goal (I know they show up at a lot of the NYRR road races, too, and some of them are ridiculously talented - I expect to see Luis Porto and Alberto Rivera going pro someday after their presumptive Oregon careers, for example). At least for the inner city cohort (I can't speak for the affluent suburb girls!) I think track might resonate a lot more than road running, since Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay (or for that matter, Sandra Richards Moss or Carmelita Jeter) probably inspire the kids in question a lot more than, say, Ryan Hall or Deena Kastor.

    All of that said (and I DO mean "all of that" - sorry for the massive comment hijack)I would personally have no idea how to get through to a room full of aspiring middle school runners (or one aspiring middle school runner for that matter). Thinking back to my kid's track team, the girls were the WORST at taking anything seriously - particularly the ones over 11 or 12. I think their coach was magical, but then again, the girls might have just been scared they would get into trouble when he reported back to their moms that they were screwing around and not serious about qualifying for the junior olympics or whatever (these track parents took stuff seriously - running fast meant scholarships, not only for college but for private high schools, too).

    OK, I'm not sure what I was trying to say with all of that. Just that being a GOTR buddy sounds maybe a little more challenging than it might first appear.

  9. very interesting post. certainly working with nyc public school kids you've gotta alter lesson plans - i've learned that through group counseling planning and agree that these ideas are sorta hokey to these kids -they're tougher and have been through a lot. as for the organization not working cohesively with the school, that happens way too often i think. it's hard to even find the right point person, and the school is usually of little help. it takes a lot of effort to get info from the DOE, and you're essentially left to do all the recruiting on your own, which is a full-time paid job, not something that can be done by volunteers in four hours per week, most of those hours which should be spent running anyway.

    as for being the white woman coming into a school where she is clearly the outsider... yeah, it's weird at first. once you build rapport with the kids, though, it works. but again, that takes time. so essentially their model has to change in the city environment, without a doubt. sorry you had such a negative experience - i was thinking about volunteering with them, but can see how these struggles would arise to make it an endeavor that requires more time and energy than four hours allows.

  10. Wow, thanks for the thoughtful comments. Katie, I agree that there has GOT to be better programs out there for kids running, and I also agree about the role models. And Sofia, I *so* agree about altering lesson plans! We did have some flexibility, and maybe I would have been able to take more liberties if I'd stuck with it - but the binder was actually quite literally a script for us (I'm pretty comfortable deviating from a script and going on my own). And good (well, sort of good) to know that I'm not alone in feeling like dealing with the school was frustrating. I wish the school employees weren't so crazy overworked...