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Running for Their Lives

Girls on the Run makes a positive difference in young girls’ lives and culminates with a 5K race to mark their physical and emotional growth.


In 2002, Laurie Dayon read an article in Runners World about Girls on the Run, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping girls boost their self-esteem while teaching them values to use in life. Her daughter was still a baby, but Dayon couldn’t help but think what such a program could do for her when she got older. She also wished she had access to an organization like Girls on the Run when she was a young girl.

In 2005, after her son was born, the organization crossed her radar – a second “tap on the shoulder” she took as a sign to take action. She contacted Girls on the Run of Chicago hoping to get involved.

In fall 2007, Dayon paid the $5,000 start-up fee and rounded up her friend Raechel Sowa along with 17 girls willing to participate in the Girls on the Run of McHenry County.

“I thought if I could help just one girl make better decisions and be more confident, I would be doing my job,” said Dayon, who is now the executive director. “We are not going to change the bad things from happening, but we can give girls the tools to deal with those situations and teach them to hold their head high and walk away.”

The national organization now has 186 U.S. councils, and Dayon said she is thrilled to serve our community. “It’s definitely a passion,” she said. “We love what we do.”

Excellent Expansion

The following year, the local Girls on the Run chapter branched out to local schools in search of more participants. In fall 2010, it expanded even further, reaching DeKalb County and renamed itself Girls on the Run of Northwest Illinois where currently 600 girls are served. The organization serves girls of McHenry County in the spring and DeKalb County in the fall.

“We continue to grow and maintain the integrity of the program, serving girls the best we know how,” Dayon stated.

Without budget for marketing and public relations, recruitment is conducted by word of mouth from families and coaches.

She said the number of participants approximately double every season. “It’s really a passion for the kids, and it’s humbling to see what we’ve created,” she said. “It’s a testimony to [the power of the Girls on the Run experience] when girls sign up again and again.”

Sound Structure

Over a 10 week period, each team of 15 girls meets twice a week to go over a lesson. Throughout 34 schools in McHenry County, 42 teams meet, led by two coaches each.

One curriculum serves 3rd through 5th-grade students; the Girls on Track program is for 6th through 8th graders. There are also two different curriculums, which coaches teach in alternating years with different games and activities to keep it interesting for return students. Girls in their second year of the program can take on a leadership role by guiding new students.

“As with anything with education, the more you repeat it, the more it becomes who you are,” Dayon stated.

Broken down into three units, the curriculum covers self-care and self-awareness along with healthy choices, whether it is eating, gratitude, or learning respect for others and oneself.

“It helps girls be confident in who they are when they don’t feel they fit in or need to make choices such as with drug and alcohol use or early sexual contact,” she said.

It also touches on connectedness, going into depth on bullying and gossiping and how to handle these situations.

The final unit deals with empowerment and sharing strengths while giving back to the community. The girls are all required to come up with their own service project and complete it within the 10 weeks of the program.

Race to the Finish

Dayon assured that it is not a lecture-based course, but activities and games are worked into each because the ultimate goal is training the girls to complete a 5K.

“No one is expected to only run it,” Dayon said. “It doesn’t matter how they cross the finish line; it’s about setting a goal and achieving it and the fact they can do anything.”

This year’s June 5th race included about 1,300 participants.

“It’s a celebration of what they worked for,” Dayon shared.

In order to keep the girls in high spirits, Girls on the Run designates a person from the community to finish last. Everyone also receives a No. 1 race bib to wear so that no one feels less important than the girl running next to them. “Every girl’s a superstar,” Dayon said.

Dayon shared an inspiring story about one eight-year-old Girls on the Run participant who lacked confidence in her abilities. “I’ve never heard anyone say ‘I can’t’ so much,” Dayon said.

On the day of the race, she was actually concerned this girl wasn’t going to show up. To her delight, she did, and when the girl had half a mile left, her running buddy told Dayon she had heard the girl say, “I can do this.”

“That’s the power of the program,” Dayon explained. “It doesn’t matter if they come from an affluent community or are economically challenged; they learn to respect and trust different segments of the community. It’s a powerful experience.”

For the families, they have the opportunity to see their daughters achieving something, and they start to think “I can do it, too,” Dayon said.

“We don’t only serve the girls, but we serve the whole family,” Dayon added. “We definitely get positive feedback from the families and coaches.”

Building Bonds

Coaches that participate in Girls on the Run play an important role in the girls’ lives.

Dayon said they choose a wide range of individuals. While some are really outgoing, others are more quiet and reserved.

“Out of that group of 15 girls assigned to two coaches, one will connect with the outgoing person and another can look up to the quiet one,” Dayon explained. “There’s really something for everyone.”

As a coach herself, the ability to be a role model for the girls is great. When she isn’t coaching, Dayon is busy planning various events and preparing for the next season. These tasks include recruiting new coaches and fundraising.

Garnering Support

Schools have no obligation aside from providing a program site, and although there is a $160 suggested fee, Girls on the Run operates a good faith system where the families can choose how much they can afford.

Aside from that, Dayon and Program Director Sowa are always on the lookout for grants and sponsorships.

“We really hope for long-term relationships with them,” Dayon said. “We are always looking at what we can do better to get their names out there. It’s not just about getting the dollars.”

As for the future, the main objective for next season is to build on the existing relationships and sites.

“We want to reach out to Alden Hebron and let them know we’re here,” she said.

Dayon would also like to see the girls that have participated return “and say they have made choices because we made a difference.”

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