Photos courtesy Girls on the Run South Louisiana.

Giving back: Girls on the Run South Louisiana

Strong. Inspiring. Joyful. Each spring and fall, the Girls on the Run 5K is filled with affirmations. Written in neon puff paint on brightly colored bandanas, the words of encouragement adorn the foreheads of the race-turned-celebration’s pint-size participants and create a sea of positivity that speaks to the strength of the organization’s mission both in the local community and nationwide.

“We have a vision of a world where girls know and activate their full potential,” explains Girls on the Run South Louisiana executive director Carley Wahlborg Fuller. “It’s our job to give them the tools to develop their confidence to be the best they can be.”

Girls on the Run started with a group of just 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996. With the goal of addressing the physical and emotional needs of young girls, the organization quickly spread across the country, arriving in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas in 2009 with the establishment of the South Louisiana chapter by Hydie Wahlborg, Fuller’s mother.

“It was a tremendous learning opportunity to watch the founding and growth of a nonprofit,” recalls Fuller, whose mother had limited experience when she took on the project of bringing Girls on the Run to the Capital  City. “It taught me that if you’re passionate, you can make anything happen.”

Catering to girls in third through sixth grades, the 10-week program places running at its core, with each session culminating in a 5K run with the all the girls in the area. Running offers an accessible outlet for any group to easily participate in together since it doesn’t require equipment other than supportive shoes, which Girls on the Run works to provide to those who cannot afford them. The weekly exercise not only gives the girls the opportunity to foster healthy habits, but it also allows them to set and achieve personal goals with the encouragement of teammates, as well as the dedicated parents, teachers and volunteers who moderate the program at individual, often school-based, sites.

However, it’s not about being competitive. The focus is on fostering relationships between both the girls and the volunteers. With bullying and unhealthy societal standards among the pressures put upon preteen girls, the program aims to establish a safe space for girls to grow and celebrate the things that make them special.

“Girls are experiencing a drop in self-confidence, and it can happen no matter who you are or where you are growing up,” says Fuller. “Our volunteers are dedicated to being a part of making that confidence flourish in all the girls they work with.”

One way volunteers perform that role is through other programming, such as scavenger hunts, arts and crafts and even in-depth conversations about health, wellness and current events, offered as part of the Girls on the Run curriculum.

“There was one activity where the girls had to uncover a secret code,” recalls parent and volunteer Emma Schneider. “When it was revealed, it said, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ The girls weren’t familiar with the phrase, and we had to explain to them that it was about celebrating differences. It made me realize all the things we don’t teach but that are so important.”

“So many volunteers tell us that they wish they had this when they were younger,” Fuller says. “We have volunteers who come back year after year, and I think that’s because they get so much out of it. Probably almost as much as the girls.”

Amid COVID-19, Girls on the Run hasn’t hung up its running shoes. The team is committed to offering girls some semblance of normalcy in a time when everything seems uncertain. This summer, the organization put out “Power Up,” an at-home activity kit containing do-it-yourself projects and step-by-step exercises specifically tailored to the needs of 8- to 11-year-old girls.

“When we pivoted to online in the spring, we knew we needed to give the girls something to do, especially with everyone cooped up at home,” explains Fuller. “We are looking to continue selling the packets this fall, in addition to making changes to the program to make it work in light of COVID regulations. It’s so important to us that we provide structure for girls to continue developing valuable life skills.”

Moving into the fall, Girls on the Run South Louisiana is still considering what the program will look like, much like every other group nationwide. However, one thing is certain: the organization and its volunteers will be working to enrich the lives of young girls in the area, regardless of if that is in person or online.

“At the founding, I saw the way it transformed my mom, myself and our conversations,” Fuller says. “This organization is so powerful and offers so much to so many girls. No matter what, we are going to be there for these girls through everything.”