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Girls on the Run

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many of Ruffner Elementary's students arrive eager to burn up some energy each morning.

If time permits before school, they walk or run laps on the sidewalk that makes a one-fifth-of-a-mile loop around the school's tidy hillside campus a few hundred yards off Oakridge Drive not far from the Capitol.

First-year principal Henry Nearman estimates that 80 to90 of his 360 students participate in the voluntary program - and they do so with vigor.

"We don't have kids who say it's too cold. We have kids running off the bus, slinging their coats, slinging their bookbags and saying, 'Can we run?' ' said Nearman, who, along with Ruffner teacher Mimi Davis, introduced the idea in September. "They want to do that. They love it.''

Beginning on Jan. 22, Ruffner Elementary will take another step that's not only fitness-minded but is designed to build self-esteem and contribute to smart decision-making in an adolescent world filled with pitfalls.

Ruffner will participate in Girls on the Run, a voluntary, after-school program that originated in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996 and comprises about 200,000 elementary and middle-school girls in 60 cities and 47 states, as well as international locales.

The 12-week program at Ruffner will consist of 90-minute instructional sessions each Monday and Wednesday starting at 3:30 p.m., capped by a running workout in preparation for a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) race on April 22. It's non-profit but accepts contributions from corporations and individual donors.

"Each lesson has a theme,'' said Rachel Wallace, a recent Marshall graduate and a Girls on the Run teacher. "There's a bullying theme, for example. We talk to the girls and have a discussion with them. It's discussion-based because we like to hear their opinions, and we usually have some games, and they're physical games, but they incorporate whatever the theme was for the lesson. When we do laps, each time they complete a lap, we might do a specific cheer.''

Added Sherry Dale, project controller at Dow Chemical and chairwoman of the local Girls on the Run advisory council: "It's to empower young women in elementary and middle school to learn skills to make them be positive about themselves mentally and physically and not have body-image issues. It's all about positive thinking, positive talking, learning how to deal with bullying. In addition, we're training for a 5-K run.''

Through the years, the program has been tweaked and fine-tuned to keep everything current and relevant.

"They've done tons of studies. It's really an experienced-based program,'' said Wallace. "Through all that, they've designed a great program for girls of this age to cover all the bases, all the things they might experience.''

The teachers, or "coaches,'' in the Kanawha program work without pay and undergo training and background checks. The Ruffner students will pay no fees, although other Girls on the Run programs sometimes ask for payments but also offer scholarships to needy students. Classes are limited to 20 girls.

Girls on the Run made a successful Kanawha Valley debut in September at Chamberlain Elementary in Kanawha City, where 17 students completed the program.

"It was a success beyond our wildest dreams,'' said Courtney Crabtree, vice-chairwoman of the advisory committee and an employee of Habitat for Humanity ReStore.  "The Chamberlain principal, Nancy Pfister, actually said it was one of the top three things she has ever done as a principal there. She said you could see the cliques going down, the bullying going down, the kids getting along better. And we worked with just 17 girls at Chamberlain. It's such an amazing program. '

Ruffner will be the only Kanawha Valley school to offer the program during the spring semester. The only other West Virginia community to participate is Princeton. Cincinnati, by contrast, operates programs in 40 elementary and middle schools.

Because many of the coaches work full-time jobs, their participation is limited, increasing the need for more coaches.

"Most of the coaches can only do one day or the other [during the week] because we can't get out of work,'' said Crabtree. "We have one head coach who does the entire season, and the assistant coaches are there.''

The Kanawha program has about a dozen coaches, as well as volunteers who help with the 5K races and contribute snacks and drinks, but it hopes to add more coaches and expand into other schools and communities.

"We did one school in the fall just to see if we could do it,'' said Crabtree. "Now we're doing one school in the spring, and we're trying to build a base so that maybe we can go to two schools or more in the fall and maybe expand outside of Kanawha County.''

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