(This month, you will begin to see reference to Girls on the Run in the Athleta catalogue and promotional materials. As the Founder of Girls on the Run, I, along with our President Liz Kunz and VP of Partnerships, Katy Brown, had the privilege to meet with the down-to-earth folks at Athleta. I’m here to tell you… I think the earth shifted a few degrees to “positive” on its axis, the day we all met at Athleta Headquarters in Petaluma, CA.
In honor of our partnership, I am reminded of this fabulous young woman named Brooke. I think you will note that there isn’t a single reference to running in this post—odd, when one considers that Girls on the Run does incorporate running, after all! But I do think it captures what rests at the core of our program—the sisterhood—and what I felt the day we met with the Athleta team. So enjoy, won’t ya?)
Several years ago, I was visiting a Girls on the Run site, in Charlotte, my hometown. They were almost 2/3 of the way through the program. They knew I was visiting… and as with any group of girls, our meeting is always a thrill… for everyone!
We started our time together inside. The winter winds were whipping up outside and I wanted to have some “quiet time” to get to know each other.
We started with something simple. “So, let’s go around the circle and share our name, our age and our favorite music group. We went to my left and around.
I then introduced them to the notion that everyone… EVERYONE comes to earth with a set of gifts… these gifts are uniquely ours and how when we use our gifts the world’s work gets done. Some of us are writers, some of us are thinkers, some of us are politicians, some of us are leaders in the traditional sense and some of us are leaders in our own quiet way. “So… how ‘bout each of you sharing with me one of your gifts… tell us… what gifts have equipped you to do your world’s work?
The girls began to answer in no particular order. Chance was an excellent friend. “I can talk to anybody. I don’t judge people.”
“Cool, I responded.”
Sierra was a writer. “I have really good ideas in my head and I enjoy putting them down on paper so that other people can see my ideas. I write for our school newspaper.”
“Excellent, I responded.”
Heather shouted out. “I can sing.”
“Will you sing for us now?”
“Really, she responded… you want me to sing now?
“Yes of course. Please, wouldn’t you guys like to hear Heather sing?
Yes everyone responded in near unison. Heather sang a few bars of Taylor Swift. We all clapped when she was done.
Everyone had shared… almost. To my right was Brooke. I had noticed her when I walked in the room thirty minutes earlier. Her sparkly eyes and her infectious smile were enough to melt any heart… especially mine.
“Brooke, I notice you haven’t shared. Do you want to share one of your most fabulous gifts?”
“I’m afraid to. You will laugh”–long deep breath, pause and then she looked to the ground. “They will laugh.”
I let her words sink in… not wanting to minimize or take away from her fear. Heather spoke up. “We won’t laugh Brooke. We are all friends here. We can say anything.”
Chance jumped in. “Yeah Brooke. It’s okay… really.”
She looked up at me. I know IT is there, but I am always struck by the intangible that Girls on the Run brings—this language of love that floats in and through the invisible space of our gatherings, like this one today. I looked deeply into her eyes… remembered being ten… so afraid to speak up… afraid of being judged… remember being 32…feeling so defined by our cultures expectations of “girls and women” afraid to speak up about it… held captive at times throughout my life by the fear of not being accepted… the hiding away of all the light and brilliance that was me… afraid of ridicule or even worse indifference.
“It’s okay. Brooke. We are all here for you girl.” Words I had so longed for when I was ten.
“Alright then. Here goes.” Brooke looked to her lap, took a deep breath and then without any further hesitation, said. “I can talk to squirrels.”
No one else spoke and the silence felt too long, but I stayed with it anyway.
“Yep.” Brooke nodded her head a bit more confidently now. No one had laughed. Her friends had listened. “I can talk to ‘em… squirrels. I talk to them in my yard, the park, wherever they are.”
The reality that someone in our midst could talk to squirrels began to settle in.
Chance asked, “That is AMAZING. Do they talk back?”
Yeah… all the others chimed in. Do they talk back?
“Well, not really,” she said. “The truth is I just seem to kind of attract them. I’m kind of like a squirrel magnet.”
“Unbelievable” the girls responded. I mean, let’s face it! We had a regular Snow White in our presence. For a good five minutes we talked about Brooke’s ability to communicate with squirrels.
“There is a lot you can do with that you know,” one of the other girls said. “You can help the animals with a talent like that.” And so the conversation went.
I walked away from this experience initially tickled… a kind of bubbly giggle made its way into my body, my step was light, up and bouncy.
But then as things so frequently do for me… the raw of this began to work its way into my being. The notion that something as simple as her ability to unequivocally and unabashedly share something so frightening, real and within… to her friends is where I believe true cultural change occurs.
Over the years, I’ve met many, many women. Each of us brings to this world our own story, our own experiences, our own set of challenges and our own talents. And over the years I have come to realize that what Girls on the Run does so profoundly and so richly is provide a deep level of tenderness and acceptance toward all of our sisters. Girls on the Run has opened my mind to my own propensity to judge and shown me that down deep… really down underneath all the judgment and intolerance what we all want really, is to feel beautiful, fully accepted and unconditionally loved just as we are and where we are in our own personal evolution, whether that’s talking to squirrels or dealing with our own demons.
As large as this organization has grown, I think what is uniquely OUR GIFT to the world is our ability to keep it personal, simple and real… to open our minds to understand what drives a girl… a woman. We all learn from her pain, her joy and we choose to honor what brought her here. Girls on the Run provides for every girl and every woman, regardless of the barriers, power differentials, institutions, belief systems and stereotypes she is battling in her own life, an opportunity to feel worthy, whole and warmed.
I felt the love and power of this program when I was with the folks at Athleta… and if I was with you… I would see it there, too… the rare, raw and wonderful 8 year old who still lives in your eyes. The Heather who sings, the Sierra who writes, the Chance who is a good friend and the Brooke who talks to squirrels,
I share all of this to you as my way of invitation. Join us if you can and if you will. Volunteer, run with a girl, share your gifts and talents. And to our new friends at Athleta, we thank you for so easily opening your hearts, minds and spirits not only to the girls we serve but to our larger Girls on the Run vision…a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly her dreams.
MOLLY BARKER is the founder of Girls on the Run International, Athleta's charitable partner. A four-time Ironman Hawaii finisher who holds a master's in social work, Molly combined her passion for sport, her counseling and teaching expertise, and her research on adolescent issues to develop and deliver the first Girls on the Run® curriculum to 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996. The innovative, experiential program combines training for a 5k event with life-changing, confidence building lessons that enhance the physical and mental health of 8 to 12 year-old girls. Today, Girls on the Run is offered in over 150 cities across North America and hundreds of thousands of girls and women’s lives have been changed by the program. Learn more and get involved at GirlsontheRun.org »