When Lindsey Doctorman was adjusting to life as a resident of Juneau, Alaska, seven years ago, a colleague at the University of Alaska approached her with the opportunity to participate in a program for elementary age girls called Girls on the Run. Doctorman nearly turned her down. Now, as Doctorman looks back at the impact this program has had on her, she is forever grateful she reconsidered her initial instinct.

Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a national after school program that focuses on empowering and providing character development for girls in grades 3-5. The mission of this 10-week program is to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living, explained Stacy Stahl, statewide director of the program. This mission is accomplished through non-competitive running and training, with the ultimate goal being to participate in a 5K walk/run event.

Participants meet twice a week for one hour and 15 minutes each session.

“During this time, girls have discussion(s) on a topic dealing with such issues as positive thinking, standing up for yourself, team building, healthy eating, body image satisfaction, making good friends, gossiping and bullying prevention, media influence, and most of all, being healthy and physically active,” said Stahl.

Once the discussion time is complete, the girls play games or do activities that focus on the topic and goal of the day. The final 30 minutes of each session is devoted to exercising and preparing themselves for a 5K event.

“Each session the running workout is increased,” said Stahl. “The running is non-competitive and also focuses on stretching before and after and learning about pacing oneself.”

GOTR, with the support of the Yankton Area United Way, had its pilot season in Yankton in the spring of 2015 at Beadle and Lincoln Elementary Schools. The program has since expanded to Webster and Stewart Elementary Schools, as well as Sacred Heart School. Eight-five girls participated in the initial season, exceeding the goal of 80 girls. In 2017, 91 girls took part in the program.

The success of GOTR wouldn’t be possible, said Stahl, without the dedication of volunteer coaches such as Doctorman.

Doctorman, an assistant professor of economics at Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., went on to participate in GOTR from 2011-2014 while living in Alaska.

After moving back to the area, Doctorman continued her involvement at both Webster and Lincoln Elementary Schools.

So what convinced Doctorman to become involved despite her initial hesitancy?

“The women I met at the training were so amazing and the GOTR program was unbelievable,” said Doctorman. “By the end of the day, I had committed to anything and everything I could related to GOTR. I was a shy, timid girl in elementary school, and on the morning of that training, I realized that there was still a piece of that within me. I realized instantly that this program was for my third grade self as well as my adult self.”

While Doctorman had run a few races before her participation with GOTR, she was not an avid runner.

“The biggest misunderstanding about GOTR is that you need to love running,” Doctorman said. “You do not. You just need to love being yourself.”

Running, as fellow coach and Yankton High School Counselor Amy Reyes discovered, isn’t necessarily the main focus of each session.

“When I first became involved, I thought it would be more of a fun after-school activity with different lessons centered around running,” Reyes said. “Once I started coaching, though, I realized it was so much more than that. GOTR teaches so many valuable life lessons and provides many opportunities for the girls to learn and practice new skills and find their strength in who they are as people.”

Bobbi Jo Aune, who works at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp and most recently coached at Sacred Heart School, is quick to agree.

“With each empowering lesson, the girls will be able to take what they learn and be (stronger) – both physically and emotionally,” said Aune. “They will be better friends.

They learn to stick up to peer pressure and bullies.”

These lessons engage participants and evoke strong and unexpected responses from the girls. Doctorman offered an example from her most recent season last fall.

She was leading a lesson about advertising and showed examples of magazine ads to the girls. Doctorman started to discuss how advertising often portrays girls and women in an unrealistic light. Before she could get her point across, the girls had taken over the conversation.

“It was not just one girl but almost all of them stating that the ads they see are unrealistic and that beauty lies within yourself,” said Doctorman. “This was coming from third to fifth grade girls and they were saying it with such confidence.

As an adult woman, I still need to hear these things no matter how confident I may feel about who I am and how I look.”

That moment, said Doctorman, was extremely moving.

“I had never had an entire group of girls say so many powerful things during that lesson, and they had myself and another coach with huge smiles on our faces and in tears,” she said. “It was such an amazing moment. There are a lot of strong girls in the world, and this program helps to make their voices louder and helps their personalities shine and sparkle.”

Aune’s daughter, Aracelli, has been an enthusiastic participant of the program. Lessons such as Doctorman described are her favorite part of each session.

“The most important one is on not being a bully,” Aracelli said.

Throughout the season, each participant has the chance to receive what is known as an energy award.

“It is a way to celebrate when girls make positive choices, and it is a fun way to celebrate accomplishments large and small,” said Reyes. “The girl who receives it gets to pick the specific energy award. They have fun making up different awards like ‘Amazon Warrior’ or ‘Dead Bug.’”

As each season progresses, the coaches see how this program affects the participants and brings positive changes to each girl.

“I have seen them go from being shy and quiet, and by the end of the season they are participating in every lesson and running at the front of the pack and becoming a team leader,” said Aune.

Doctorman agreed, describing how powerful it is to watch a girl who is unsure at the start of the season gain confidence with each lesson.

“I coached a girl for two seasons and she wasn’t able to make the 5K her first season,” said Doctorman. “It was not until mile three of our 5K after season two that she finally changed her ‘I can’t’ into an ‘I can.’ She needed to see the actual finish line and be so close to it to realize she could do it.

She did not believe she could do it until she actually did it. It’s those moments, no matter how long they take, that make it worth it.”

Along with weekly lessons and training to run a 5K, participants work on a community impact project that they choose as a group.

“This is such an important part of the program because it emphasizes the importance of giving back and contributing to a cause greater than yourself,” said Reyes.

Past community impact projects have ranged from cleaning up playgrounds and visiting residents of Walnut Village to raising money for Heartland Humane Society.

During the last session of the season, each girl receives an award based on her best quality.

“We talk about each girl, her unique qualities, and all the great things she has contributed to our group,” said Doctorman. “Before we say the girl’s name, most have figured out who we are talking about. It is the aspects of who we are on the inside and how we treat others that we use to award the girls, and they know exactly who we are talking about. That, to me, is very powerful. I do not know many instances where you describe someone by how they make you feel rather than the color of their skin, body type or clothes they wear. That is Girls on the Run.”

As the coaches prepare for another season of GOTR (the spring session runs from late February to May), they are sure of one thing – they will continue to participate in the program.

“I will continue to volunteer as long as I can,” said Aune. “I knew this was something that I wanted to do from day one of the program - something that I had to do.”

Doctorman, who is on hiatus from the program this spring as she adjusts to her work at Wayne State College, sees only unlimited opportunities for the girls who are part of this program.

“You often hear coaches say that they wish they had this program when they were in elementary school,” said Doctorman. “I know it has helped me grow as a woman. I cannot imagine what it would be like to realize this as a third grader and to have this confidence in your self before middle school. Can you imagine?

Watch out world! These girls are going to take over, and it is amazing!”