For more than a decade, a program has been helping Dane County girls develop critical life skills while encouraging physical fitness.

Christine Benedict, executive director of Girls on the Run, spoke to the Waunakee Rotary Club about the program, including its 5k run for girls in grades 3-5 each November in Waunakee.

Benedict described Girls on the Run as an “empowerment program” that creatively uses running to help girls get excited about their own strength and power. It also teaches empathy, how to be a good friend and to work with peers, mentors, siblings and family members.

The girls learn about setting a goal and achieving it, and the program also offers an exceptional experience for the volunteer coaches.

The girls meet in small groups mostly at elementary schools and other sites with indoor and outdoor spaces.

Here, Girls on the Run comprises an eight-county territory. The girls meet twice weekly for 10 weeks in the spring and fall of each year. Starting in March and September, during each of those 90-minute sessions, the girls spend half of their time running and moving their bodies. They set goals for how many laps they’ll run and keep track of their time and distance.

The other 45 minutes is spent learning from each other about life skills.

At the end of the 10-week program, the girls identify a community need and design a project. They have organized bake sales, car washes and other fundraising events to benefit agencies like the Dane County Humane Society. Other projects have included sewing hats for children in the hospital.

Studies have shown that 77 percent of the participants can identify a life skill that they took away from the program, and 85 percent said they gained confidence.

Girls on the Run began offering college scholarships last year. Scholarships are also offered to cover the $160 participant fee in the program.

“We never turn a child away,” Benedict said. “We want to make sure every child has access to the program if they want it and need it.”

Funding for Girls on the Run comes from program fees and generous donors, along with fundraisers like the upcoming Feb. 25 Sneaker Soiree. Grants and individual donations also help with funding.

The national program has served nearly 2 million girls. Dane County’s council has served nearly 14,000 girls since 2005.

The program has been in Waunakee since 2007, and Waunakee Rotary funds have been used to support the 5k event each November, drawing 3,000 people to the village. This year’s 12th annual event is Nov. 7.

Families involved also bring donations to the Waunakee Food Pantry.

In 2020, Girls on the Run will offer a new curriculum with a one-week summer camp. Benedict said Girls on the Run also hopes to serve more high-need families and expand to surrounding communities.

Coaches are needed for the program. Practices are held twice weekly after school for 90 minutes. The program culminates with the girls creating and executing a community impact project and completing a celebratory 5k event. This season, practices will begin during the week of March 23, and the Girls on the Run 5K will be held on Saturday, June 6, in Middleton.

Anyone who wants to get involved in the program can visit girlsontherunscwi.org.

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