FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- When Jenni Fenton first heard about Girls on the Run, "I fell head over heels in love with the way it boosts girls' self-esteem while they train for a 5K. I've got two young daughters. I wanted to make that program happen in Fayetteville."
"Fayetteville's a wonderful outdoor area, but there's not a lot of organized physical activities for grade-school girls after school," she said. "I want girls to have activities other than texting and video games to enjoy. I want them to know they can be proud of themselves for reasons other than being pretty."
It took two years, but she did it. The state's newest Girls on the Run group now meets twice a week at Fayetteville Elementary, coached by Fenton and three other volunteer mothers. "The first session blew us away," she said. "All the coaches were walking on air afterward. Imagine being in a room with 36 young girls who are so excited to be there, they can't stop smiling."
On a recent March afternoon, girls and coaches were still smiling. "I never in my life thought I could run 15 laps," one fourth-grader said, grinning broadly as she stopped for water. "It's so much fun," another said, throwing her hands in the air.
Girls can participate for three years, from third grade through fifth, age 8 through 11. The cost to each girl's family is $25 for 24 sessions, 90 minutes each, over 12 weeks. There are scholarships, so money is not a roadblock for low-income families. "There are no tryouts. It's not competitive," Fenton said. "If you sign up and show up, you're on the team."
The word "fun" comes up again and again. "My girls don't think of it as exercising. They just think of it as fun," said coach Lauren Weatherford, who has two daughters in the program.
More than 120,000 girls in 47 states participate in the nonprofit Girls on the Run program. In North Carolina, for instance, 12,000 girls and 8,000 Virginia girls take part. In West Virginia, almost 600 participated in 2012 in Barbour, Mercer, Monongalia, Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties.
Most West Virginia programs offer 12 weeks in the fall, then another 12 weeks in the spring. "A lot of girls sign up again and again," said Randolph County coach Terry Evans. Mercer County offers a program for middle-school girls.
When Fenton called the national office to say she wanted to start a Fayetteville program, "They said I had to affiliate with a council first." West Virginia has three councils: in Bluefield, Elkins and Morgantown.
Fenton called the Elkins organizer, Evans, and "I pretty much begged her to let us affiliate this year." Evans agreed, so Fenton "scrambled around and found three other mothers to coach with me." Evans trained them to coach, then they handed out applications at Fayetteville Elementary. "We hoped 18 girls would sign up, and we had to cut it off at 36."
Like many counties, Fayette County struggles with child obesity. "What better way to prevent children from being overweight than to help them enjoy being active?" Fenton said. "If they enjoy it, they keep doing it!" Girls of all sizes join, she pointed out, so nobody is singled out. "This is about being healthy, no matter what size you are.
"Kids don't play outside now like they did when I was growing up in Moorefield, so programs like this are even more important," she said. Parents hesitate to just send their kids out to play these days, she said, and kids are often inside watching screens.
At Fayetteville Elementary, the girls get physical education for a half-hour only two or three times a week, she said. "This is a great addition," said P.E. teacher Joe Dean. "The girls are loving it." The school donates the space.
Each session, every girl sets a goal for the number of laps she thinks she can finish that day. The coaches follow a step-by-step curriculum. Girls sit on the floor in a circle at the beginning of each session. Every session has a theme: gossiping, peer pressure, bullying, positive self-talk, cooperation, nutrition. "It's about a whole lot more than running," Evans said.
On that March day, they were talking about gratitude. "Did you ever try to do something nice for somebody, and they didn't appreciate it?" Weatherford asked her circle. Hands shot up. "Show me with your face how that felt inside." The girls made ugly faces, then laughed.
Next, they stretched and did cheers and jumps, played a short team game, then went outside to run for 40 minutes.
Every other lap, each girl stopped and wrote down something she is grateful to have. The program frequently incorporates an activity on the day's theme in with the running, Evans said. When the theme is cooperation, for instance, the girls string a bead on a common string for each lap they complete, then they see how far they ran collectively.
On May 5, the Fayetteville girls will travel to Elkins to join girls from other counties, family members, coaches -- and anyone else -- for their 5K. "They're very excited about it," Fenton said.
The 12-week program costs about $65 a girl for the 5K, snacks, T-shirt and water bottle. The $25 fee does not cover it, so they have to raise money every year, so far from local businesses. Programs can charge families what they want, Evans said, "and in other states, some charge more than $100, but we wanted to keep it affordable here."