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Byrom Elementary takes strides toward empowerment with Girls on the Run

The first of its kind in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, Girls on the Run's first season is going strong


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Charlie, 5th grade, leads third graders; Brooke, Brooklyn and Natasha by running around the baseball fields at their school at Byrom Elementary School during the Girls on the Run after school program.
On a hot sunny day, 14 girls run laps around a field outside their school. All third- through fifth-graders, the girls run, walk and skip their way around, collecting an inspirational popsicle stick for every lap they complete.

“I can do this,” reads one popsicle stick. “Sweat makes you sparkle,” reads another.

Words and phrases such as “Superstar,” “Rock star” and “Girls rule” are found on other popsicle sticks, all written in marker, all encouraging the girls to keep moving even if they’re tired.

“I’m really bad at running; I can’t get myself to run,” said Maya, a third-grader at Byrom Elementary School in Tualatin and a Girls on the Run participant. “I only run (if) I’m playing a tag game. So I wanted to find a way to encourage my running, and run whenever I want without stopping.”

This is one of the many goals of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit that encourages girls to take take charge of their lives girls to take take charge of their lives and not set limits for themselves. The 12-week program consists of a curriculum that covers topics such as bullying, self esteem, peer pressure and the media’s portrayal of female beauty, to name a few.

Some of those are topics the girls have learned about in school or at home, but some are new, too. Girls on the Run provides a safe, boy-free zone where these elementary schoolers can talk freely, without fear of criticism or ridicule. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fifth-grader Stella runs around the baseball fields at Byrom Elementary School during the Girls on the Run after school program.

“It’s prepping girls to go into middle school and be confident in themselves,” said first grade teacher Sandy Van Vleet, who launched the program at Byrom this year, making it the first and only school using Girls on the Run in the Tigard-Tualatin School District. “Everything is just so relevant in their lives, in any person’s life. I cannot think of a person who would not benefit from these lessons.”

And for the girls, it doesn’t even appear that the lessons are the cumbersome part of their twice-a-week, 90-minute sessions. They’re fully engaged while their coaches are talking, and the coaches are always ready with answers to whatever questions are thrown at them.

“I think the most important part is the learning, thinking part, because that’s something that you really have to work harder on than learning how to run for a long distance and time,” said fourth-grader Eva. “It gives you people that you know you can trust, and they’re all girls so you don’t feel weird telling it to some boy.”

Her friend Sydney, also a fourth-grader, agreed, noting that the “breather” lesson, where they learned how to breathe and calm down before expressing their feelings, helped her communicate better at home.

“I think the more important things are the lessons for me,” Sydney said. “Sometimes when I go home, I talk to my parents about it and they help me, and I use it a lot outside of Girls on the Run.”

For the three coaches, all teachers at Byrom, the acceptance of the program’s life lessons has been is a welcome surprise. Going into it, they weren’t sure how willingly the girls would embrace lessons tied into athletics, but they were thrilled to discover that the girls have no problem engaging in all aspects of the curriculum.

“When we first read over them, I thought, ‘Oh. These have good intentions (but) they’re not really going to be into it.’ But we have seen that not to be the case,” said coach Casi Chen, a special education teacher. “I like seeing the girls develop and change over time. They came in with their go-to friend, and now that the season is more underway, they’ve kind of branched out and made new friends. You see their confidence grow.”

Adding and expanding friendships are aspects of the program that the girls really seem to enjoy. For most of them, the first thing they say when asked what they like about Girls on the Run is all the new friends they’ve made. And yet, it all ties back into learning how to lead a happy, healthy lifestyle at a young age, and that being active can be social and informative, not just tiring. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Amie MacDonald, a kindergarten teacher at Byrom Elementary School, leads part of the curriculum for Girls on the Run, an afterschool program that helps empower young girls.

“I run myself, and running is therapy. As you run, you think about things,” said coach and kindergarten teacher Amie MacDonald, whose fourth-grade daughter is a Girls on the Run participant. “Teaching them at a young age that athletics can be part of a good, positive self image — I think it all goes hand in hand.”

Many of the girls struggled to run consistently at first, said MacDonald, but have since made huge improvements. Two weeks ago, the girls ran their first 5K, a practice for the real one they have coming up on Saturday, May 30, with all the Girls on the Run participants in the area. For the 5Ks, they partner with adult women as running buddies — either parents or community volunteers — who run alongside the girls and help get them through the race. The mentality in practice is similar, with coaches and girls alike helping each other through their runs.

“Going through (the practice 5K), it was super hard, but then after, you just felt like you could do anything!” said Sydney. “During the run, I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ but then afterward, I felt much better. I felt perfect.”

Running around a field on a hot May day, the girls are constantly moving. When they get tired, their friends and coaches encourage them to keep moving, even if they slow to a walk. Some speed ahead on their own, while others stick together in packs, but that’s all accepted.

After all, this isn’t an activity with defined lines; it’s a place of empowerment, where girls are encouraged to do more than they thought possible, yet always remain true to themselves. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fourth-graders Simone, 9, Sydney, 10, and Eva,10, run around the baseball fields at their school at Byrom Elementary School during the Girls on the Run after school program.

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