Originally published March 23, 2019 in the Westerly Sun.
By Cynthia Drummond
Twice a week, students in Grades 3 and 4 at Ashaway Elementary School meet after school for 90 minutes in the gymnasium. What makes this after-school club different is that the members are all girls.
Health and physical education teacher Jackie Sorensen brought the Girls on the Run program with her when she moved to Rhode Island from San Diego in 2016. The program is designed by Girls on the Run International, a girls’ empowerment organization based in North Carolina.
“I just thought it was a great program,” Sorensen said. “It’s a huge national organization. It’s a nonprofit. Even though we do running, it’s mostly about character-building, self-esteem, girls getting their confidence and working on that inner beauty strength rather than focusing solely on the exterior.”
Sorenson, the head coach of the program, and four other teachers and teachers’ assistants, volunteer as coaches.
“We volunteer our time and it is a big time commitment, so I think that’s where it’s tough to get people,” she said.
The program, which runs from February to the end of May, follows the Girls on the Run curriculum, which not only includes physical activity but lots of talking and listening.
“They just tend to open up a little bit more and they’re more comfortable, seeing that all the coaches are female, too,” Sorensen said. “Sometimes we have these really great dialogues, especially with the different topics. So whether it’s expressing our emotions, whether it’s recognizing what makes us each unique — some of the things that they have said over the past three years really tug at the heartstrings.”
Fourth-graders Hazel A., Hazel S. and Emma I. are doing the program for a second year. (The school does not release the family names of its students.)
“It works great,” Hazel S. said. “There’s warm-ups and activities. Sometimes you can learn new things about people.”
“We run, but we can express ourselves, actually say our feeling, be the way we are,” Hazel A. added.
Emma said she felt comfortable sharing her feelings with her teammates.
“You know that you can trust the team,” she said. “They’re kind of like your family by the end. They help you along the way and you can talk about your problems.”
A girls-only club, Emma said, was a welcome change.
“I think boys are a bit more competitive and this is not a very competitive program. You kind of want everybody to be equal,” she said.
Principal Jeffrey Scanapieco said the program provided an environment where girls could feel free to share their thoughts and experiences with each other.
“It’s allowing them to talk and discuss issues that they’re thinking about, and at the same time, it gives them a safe zone to say things that they might not say otherwise if boys were present,” he said.
Each lesson has a theme. On this day, it’s how to express emotions in an appropriate way.
“We’ll go through empathy, people’s feelings, words matter, friendship, choosing friends, resolving conflicts with friends — so it’s stuff that’s going on in their life, it just allows them the opportunity to talk about it,” Sorensen said. “The whole idea behind the program is it’s supposed to be girl-driven, so even though the coaches are leading the lessons, really, we just want to hear from them.”
The program also includes a community service component, in which the girls choose a project and work on it together.
“They do a community impact project, so they need to all decide how they’re going to affect the community they live in, whether it’s the school environment, whether it’s Ashaway, and they have to complete the project within one session,” Sorensen said. “The coaches are completely hands-off.”
Last year, the girls sent encouraging messages to children at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and the year before, club members did a cleanup of their school grounds. Scanapieco said the culmination of the program is a 5K run at Colt State Park in Bristol.
“They have a great time running, participating in all the activities, and then there’s that activity at the end where they have that 5K run which is wonderful, and the girls really get a lot out of it,” he said.
Working with the girls, Sorensen said, has had a positive influence on her own life.
“The reason I come back season after season is I’m just as impacted as the girls are,” she said. “I think it’s a very powerful program and as much of a time commitment as it is, it’s an awesome opportunity for those girls who don’t play sports or don’t have anything going on after school.”