Girls on the Run

by Chiara Licari • photos by Two Eagles Marcus

Young girls across West Michigan have been preparing for the annual Girls on the Run (GOTR) 5K celebration, taking place in Grand Rapids on May 20 and in Muskegon on June 3. GOTR is an international program that aims to empower girls to develop into strong women through a curriculum involving running, goal reaching and team building.

GOTR’s vision statement reads, “We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams,” an inspiring reflection of the program, which is crafted for elementary aged girls from third to fifth grade and encourages them to reach for the stars while giving them the tools to do so confidently.

Executive Director of GOTR of Kent and Muskegon County, Lori Burgess, with some girls in the program.

GOTR of Kent and Muskegon County Executive Director Lori Burgess explains running is a concrete means by which the girls can achieve their goals.

“You don’t have to be a runner,” Burgess said. “[We focus on] so many other parts of the girls’ development. They learn about preparing and training and working toward that goal and at the finish line we hope they come away saying, ‘If I can do that, what else can I do?’ with the power to say, ‘I can!’”

Each 10-week long season, registered girls are placed on a team and attend practice twice a week. Through development and balance in confidence, character, care, connections, and competence, they do physical activities and work together to make a positive impact on the community through a service project, whether it’s pulling weeds or raising money for the American Cancer Society. A typical practice revolves around a lesson plan that covers the topics of identity, connectedness and empowerment.

“If she is having a rough day, we talk about how she can activate her Star Power.”

Kristie Scanlon, GOTR coach and mother to nine-year-old runner Katie Scanlon, has found the program to be powerful as it fosters conversations and developing relationships between the girls.

“Through the curriculum, coaches teach and role model skills and techniques to empower the girls to make healthy decisions and live a joyful life,” Kristie said.

After their lesson and some discussion, the girls run a lap. The lap length varies over the season, challenging the runners to make individual goals and record how close they came to achieving it. With all their data collected in one chart, they are able to visualize their improvement and understand what setting a goal means when taking a certain task into consideration. Girls also fill out an identity card that allows them to come home with something tangible to show what they’ve accomplished and are given take home assignments that encourage discussion with their families about what they’ve learned at practice.

“As a mother, the Girls on the Run curriculum has given me a new language to communicate with my daughter,” Kristie said. “If she is having a rough day, we talk about how she can activate her Star Power.”

Her daughter, Katie, explains that Star Power is part of your identity, “what makes you yourself” and has found it an important concept in her time with GOTR.

“When you are happy, your star is shining and it feels good,” Katie said. “You sometimes have a cloud too, and if you are sad or something, your cloud can come and cover the star. Friends can help you find your Star Power again and you feel good about yourself.”

Nine-year old runner Katie Scanlon and her mom Kristie Scanlon, GOTR coach at the Gazelle Girl Half Marathon event.

Former runner Giulia Will, 17, expresses that GOTR has helped her gain confidence. She has one piece of advice for the young girls in the program:

“They shouldn’t focus on being the first person across the finish line. It’s about having fun and encouraging each other to do and be the best they can.”

If a girl wishes to continue her time with GOTR, a program called Heart and Sole is available for girls from sixth to eight grade. The program deals with boundaries and prepares the runners for high school, allowing for open discussion about what comes next.

“It gives them the opportunity to put their thoughts and feelings into words,” Burgess said.

GOTR is glad to say that they never turn a girl down is ever turned down from the program for monetary reasons; financial aid is available for those who qualify. Through a partnership with Gazelle Sports, every girl also receives a new pair of running shoes, leveling the playing field for everyone involved. After many years with the program, Burgess has been happy to bare witness to the profound effects of the program.

“It has the power to change lives,” Burgess said. “It’s not just the girls, but their coaches and the girls’ families—it truly has the power to transform entire families.”

For more information on Girls on the Run, please visit

Chiara Licari is a Writing and Advertising/Public Relations double major at GVSU venturing out in West Michigan and getting a taste of the writing life.  

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