The girls had slowed to a brisk walk as they approached the last leg of the 3.1-mile race. Then, they saw the finish line.
Grabbing hands, they dashed toward the end, cheering as they greeted their coaches and friends.
To them, their finish signaled much more than the end of a race. It was the culmination of a 10-week journey where they not only learned how to finish a 5K race, but also learned more about themselves and how to conquer the world as confident young women.
More than 4,000 local girls since 2010 have experienced the same sense of triumph, thanks to Girls on the Run East Central Ohio.
The nonprofit organization is an independent council of Girls on the Run International. It was established in Stark County in December 2009 with 24 girls during its inaugural season. This year, the organization is serving girls in 14 of Stark County’s 17 school districts and has expanded to multiple private schools, including St. Peter, St. Paul, Heritage Christian and Canton Country Day schools. It also has added three sites in Wayne County and expects to start serving girls in Tuscarawas County next year.
Despite its success, leaders of the local organization say many people believe it only helps girls learn how to run.
“We’re not just a running group,” said Mary Jo Harroff, chair of the GOTR East Central Ohio’s 10-member governing board. “We’re an impactful organization that looks to inspire young girls for the future.”
Through weekly discussions and activities that incorporate running, trained GOTR coaches teach girls in third through eighth grade lessons about confidence, treating others with care, dealing with peer pressure and how to celebrate what makes them one of a kind.
Near the end of the 10-week program, each GOTR team picks a community service project to complete. Program coordinator DeeDee Amentas said some of the local projects have included fundraising for local causes such as the Stark County Humane Society, book donations and making encouragement cards for domestic violence victims or hospital patients. One team held a bake sale and donated the proceeds to GOTR to help another girl participate in the program.
“They love it,” Amentas said. “It’s one of their favorite lessons. There’s such a sense of pride after they’ve done it.”
The program’s culminating event is its spring 5K race, which will be held May 19 at Walsh University in North Canton. The all-female race featured 1,250 racers last year, making it one of the largest races in Stark County.
The group’s Wayne County Spring 5K race will be held May 20 at the Ohio State University Wooster Campus. The Wayne County race is open to men and women.
Registration details for either race are available at gotreco.org/.