Photos by Leonardo Carrizo

Run like a Girl

If you want to see change in the world, start with young girls. This statement is the root of a local organization aimed to empower and help develop strong women, starting at a young age.

“We envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams,” said Jess Sparks, council director for Girls on the Run Franklin County.

Girls on the Run is an organization based in Charlotte that functions as an after-school, activity-based program for girls in third to eighth grades. Girls take part in meetings twice a week with GOTR volunteers and coaches at sites all around the city, where they undergo a complex curriculum full of life skills.

How to handle gossip, for example, is one such skill. Girls explore how gossip starts, what you do during its course of action and after, etc. They’re taught skills that we all face in adulthood.

“Running is not just a metaphor. It’s
a social tool—you’re talking, you’re
discussing life’s ups and downs.”

“A lot of our volunteers even say, ‘Is there a program where you could scale this up for adults in the workplace?’” Sparks said with a laugh, as we could probably all learn from GOTR classes.

And many of the volunteers do, in fact, benefit from the curriculum. Anyone—no matter your gender or age—can volunteer with the organization. Sparks credited them as a key component in its enormous growth since its inception in Columbus in 2008. They began with 12 participants, grew to a few hundred four years later and now have more than 1,400 enrolled.

“At the beginning, they are talking about their own values and what makes them unique,” Sparks said. “Then they go into talking about how to manage their relationships with each other, and how to respectfully assert themselves. And the third part, the girls focus on developing their community impact project, where they self-select a community need that they then create a service project around.”

The 10-week program culminates with a 5K walk/run event; a celebration of their work and learning, and the breadth of knowledge they’ve cultivated thus far. This year the spring season will close with the race on May 30 at Columbus Commons.

Despite the verb in the organization’s name, Sparks stressed that they are so much more than a running organization.

“Running is not just a metaphor,” she said. “It’s a social tool—you’re talking, you’re discussing life’s ups and downs. And it’s noncompetitive; no one is forced to run. It’s about encouraging movement and being active.”

GOTR’s ultimate mission is to prepare young girls physically, mentally and emotionally for life and to motivate, build confidence and encourage lifelong health and fitness. Running is just the vehicle.

“No matter where you are, where you’re coming from, whatever your circumstances, you’re a girl, and by virtue of having the challenges that are unique to being a girl, our program helps you make better choices for yourself.”

Sparks said that’s what keeps her motivated and passionate every day: teaching young girls the skills “to make the whole world better, and they can’t do that unless we teach them to do that. What makes girls stronger is working together.”

For more information about the organization or to learn how to volunteer, visit