It’s always heartening to see efforts aimed at bolstering students’ self-esteem. Confident young students will go on to accomplish great things because the adults in their lives taught them that they are competent individuals capable of great things. there are many traditional programs and systems to teach young students the value of confidence and high self-esteem, there are newer, non-traditional programs emerging with great success. One program in particular is based in New Jersey called the Girls on the Run Program. This program uses running to teach girls in grades three through five life skills that build confidence and self-esteem.

Trying to overcome a problem? Just run, says Donna York.

York is the executive director of the Central New Jersey council of Girls on the Run, a program that teaches girls grades three through five problem solving, team building, self-confidence and more through running-related activities.

“For a lot of girls just coming to Girls on the Run is the only place they feel accepted,” says York, who has been involved with Girls on the Run for 12 years. “Life can be very hard in today’s society for a lot of girls.”

Girls on the Run programs run twice a year for 12 weeks each, with the fall season starting in September. Each season ends with the girls completing a 5K run. For the Girls on the Run of Central New Jersey, which includes 48 programs located at schools and public parks in Somerset, Monmouth, Ocean, Camden and Middlesex counties, the fall season 5K will take place Nov. 24 in Somerville.

Girls on the Run was created in 1996 in Charlotte, N. C., by Molly Barker. It became a nonprofit organization in 2000 and today serves over 130,000 girls in 200+ cities across North America each year. There are four Girls on the Run councils in New Jersey: Central New Jersey, Hunterdon County, New Jersey East and New Jersey North, which oversee all of the Girls on the Run programs throughout the regions. There is also a sister program, Girls on Track, which serves girls in grades 6-8.

Each Girls on the Run practice, which is led by volunteer coaches, incorporates running games and laps, says York. But the focus of Girls on the Run isn’t physical exercise. The girls have to answer questions, talk or write about topics like bullying, gossiping, body image, peer pressure, positive thinking, problem solving and more before, during and after the activities.

“Running is secondary to the life lessons that we teach the girls,” York says. “For the most part you are teaching them these lessons without them realizing they are learning them. Instead of sitting them in a room and talking at them, they are doing activities and learning.”

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