July 1, 2013 06:00 AM

A program for pre-adolescent girls heads to Acadiana to teach self esteem while training for a 5K road race.



Nine-year-old Kayden Guilbeaux doesn't suffer bullies lightly.

"It makes me feel sad."

Or unrealistic body images forced on girls through mass media.

"I think that girls shouldn't do that - it's just not right."

How is a kid headed into fourth grade at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau even aware of body image? Girls on the Run.

Begun in 1996 in North Carolina, the program has spread, largely through word of mouth, across the United States and Canada. It found its way into New Orleans, Houma and Baton Rouge several years ago, beginning in the capital city with two dozen participants at two schools and growing to more than 500 girls at 30 schools in BR alone.

The semester-long program held in the fall and spring is ostensibly, as the name implies, about training for a 5K race, the final celebration of Girls on the Run. But GOTR isn't solely about physical fitness.

"While they are training for a 5K, they're doing so much more than that," says Hydie Wahlborg, executive director of Girls on the Run Louisiana. "At each team meeting they're presented with a lesson that is designed to give them tools to deal with issues that girls their age deal with as they grow into adolescence. So they're learning how to deal with gossip and bullying and how to have a positive body image, how to be part of a team, and beyond that how to recognize that they're part of more than their peer group - they're part of their community and part of the world."

Girls on the Run, designed for kids in third through fifth grade, is the sister program to Girls on Track, which continues the life lessons for girls in sixth through 8th grade. GOTR costs $160 per semester, but Wahlborg notes that the fee is based on a sliding scale determined by a family's ability to pay, and nearly half the girls who participate do so for free thanks to scholarships funded by grants and corporate sponsorships.

Girls on the Run participants at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau  

Back in Acadiana, Kayden's mom, Amber Guilbeaux, was so impressed by the program after she and Kayden participated in a GOTR 5K in Baton Rouge that she became coach of her daughter's team. Her team nickname: Coach Awesome.

"I love coaching it, and I'll probably continue to coach even after my daughter moves on," Amber says. "I love watching the girls - you see them grow not only physically, but you see them change right before your eyes over the 10 weeks. In the beginning they're walking more and at the end they're running more. And seeing them grow as a person - you see them form friendships - brings me so much joy.

"It's changed me as a person; it's just filled a part of me that was missing. I wish they would've had something like that when I was young."

Both Amber Guilbeaux and Wahlborg, who has had two daughters in GOTR, say girls today are bombarded with images in popular culture of how they should behave, how they should dress, how their bodies should look - catalysts for gossip, bullying and self-destructive behavior. Teaching girls to respect themselves as they are, and to do the same with others, is the prime objective of the program. Getting fit and making exercise part of their day-to-day routine is lagniappe.

"We know that girls, when they reach adolescence, they go into this place that we call the girl box, and it's morphed into what they think they should be instead of who they really are," Wahlborg says. "We want to inspire girls to stay true to themselves and that's what Girls on the Run does. The curriculum is based on research in adolescent growth and development and it was evaluated and studied and proven that girls who go through the program leave the program feeling more empowered and confident with a more positive body image."

Training for the 5K gives the girls a common goal. But it's the fellowship and self-esteem lessons along the way that really matter.

Last fall was the inaugural GOTR at the Grand Coteau all-girls Catholic school. Amber Guilbeaux says they had eight girls that first semester. It more than doubled into two teams by the spring, and more participants are expected when the program resumes for the approaching fall semester.

"Our school, thankfully, is so 100 percent behind it - they love everything that's behind Girls on the Run, what it teaches besides the running," she says. "You can see it in the girls; it teaches them to be better girls."

Wahlborg has been in discussions with the Lafayette Parish School System about starting GOTR teams in the Hub City. She says the LPSS has been receptive to the program.

But there's no better recruiter for Girls on the Run than the girls themselves. "It's so much fun," gushes Kayden Guilbeaux, who may be short on words but doesn't lack for enthusiasm. "You learn how to be positive. You do fun activities."

To find out more about starting a Girls on the Run team at your daughter's school, contact Heidi Wahlborg at (225) 247-2286 or send an email to hydie@girlsontherungbr.org.

For more on the program, visit GOTR's website at GirlsOnTheRunGBR.org.

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