By: Kim Green
June 13, 2013
“I see Hope, and where she came from,” says Patti Urban; it seems as much a statement of philosophy and faith as a story about her 11-year-old daughter, Hope.
“Hope was a premature baby,” Patti says, “born two-and-a-half pounds. She was always very inward and quiet.” It’s hard to believe she’s talking about the effervescent little girl sitting next to her, dressed from head to toe in pink “Girls on the Run” gear and sparkling with tales of miles run and victories hard-won.
Patti credits Girls on the Run (GOTR) with her daughter’s transformation. Four years ago, then-8-year-old Hope joined a newly-minted Nashville chapter of GOTR, an international nonprofit that prepares girls in third to fifth grades for a 5K run over the course of 12 weeks. It wasn’t long before Hope started winning races. Discovering that she excels at something, she says, “makes me feel happy and confident and special.”
“Her spirit and her personality just took off,” says Patti. “And I truly believe the program had a lot to do with that.”
But for Hope, GOTR is about more than just winning races. It’s about the camaraderie with her peers (who learn that encouraging each other is more important than competing), her coaches, and especially her running buddy, triathlete, and ultra-marathoner Sydney Bush-Foster. “When I run with Sydney, she’s like my mom, because she makes me feel better when I’m sad,” says Hope. “She helps me feel confident that I can do this.”
For Bush-Foster, the rewards go both ways. She finds it inspiring to “watch how Hope and the other girls have grown.
“Hope has become stronger and a more determined runner than ever,” she says. “And that strength relates to other areas in her life.”
Finding inner strength through physical fitness is the crux of the GOTR program — the brainchild of Molly Barker, a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete. She recalls her own adolescence as a time of flagging self-worth and a bewildering struggle to whittle down her true self in order to conform to the impossibly circumscribed roles society expects women to fulfill — a struggle which she dubbed “the girl box.” In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Ballantine), psychologist Mary Pipher describes that gradual loss of identity in girls’ early teen years: “Studies show that girls’ IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet … They lose their assertive, energetic, and ‘tomboyish’ personalities and become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies.”
GOTR hopes to reach out to girls before those difficult teen years, bolstering them against that loss of self and against the negative messages society sends, messages about what they should look like and how they should behave. As GOTR Nashville executive director Jennifer Kimball explains, each running session incorporates a group discussion (usually disguised as games and fun activities) addressing issues like healthy eating, images of women in media, gossiping, popularity, and bullying.
“Choice is a really big part of it,” Kimball says. “We ask them, ‘Do you choose to affect other people by being a bully? Or do you choose to stand up for someone who’s being bullied?’”
Hope’s sister Samantha, who joined GOTR last year, says she enjoys the games and lessons more than the actual races. And she loves the fact that she and her sister have inspired their mom Patti to start running, too. “She always wanted to run a race with us,” Samantha says proudly. “She wanted to be in the action.”
“I lost 135 pounds,” Patti adds. “My next goal is to run a marathon.”
Patti’s father (and Hope’s and Samantha’s grandfather) Bill Ferrari may not have foreseen the profound changes he set in motion within his family four years ago when he discovered the newly-formed GOTR group at Percy Priest Elementary (where he was substitute teaching) and suggested Hope give it a try. But he’s been around long enough to understand the odds a single mom and her daughters are up against in today’s world.
“Let’s not be unrealistic. Girls on the Run is not magic,” says Ferrari, ever the pragmatist. “Life is still a struggle for girls growing up. But what these girls have now are tools that help them to deal with their struggles. And that’s what Girls on the Run does for them.”
To learn more about Girls on the Run Nashville and to find out how you can get involved, visit gotrnashville.org.