15 years on, Girls on the Run Vermont continues to impact families across state


BENNINGTON -- To quote the late Maya Angelou: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

When Nancy Heydinger started a program called Girls on the Run at Vernon Elementary School in 2000, her dream was to teach her daughters about self-empowerment through a curriculum based around running -- the ability to feel confident in their own skin.

Now 15 years after that original dream, Heydinger's leap of faith to bring GOTR to Vernon has morphed into a non-profit organization, GOTRVT, that stretches across 14 counties in Vermont and over 130 elementary and middle schools. And the feeling that Heydinger's organization brings can be seen in halls of schools across Bennington County.

"For me, it's the impact on the girls, it's the impact on the families, it's the impact on the communities [that's most important to me]," Heydinger said as she sat in her office in a commercial building in Brattleboro -- a far cry from her original office in the dining room of her house. "And I feel like it's a family. We all have the same mission and goal: To support our girls."

Melissa Rowe felt the same way when she was a nurse at Bennington Elementary School.

Rowe, who has since moved on from her position as a nurse at the school, introduced an idea for a new afterschool curriculum to Kathy Zemianek, who was a social worker at the school at the time. It was called Run, Girls, Run -- a program very similar to GOTR. Together, the pair approached then-principal Jim Harwood to get the funding, which he made happen, and got the ball rolling on what would be the first school in Bennington County to fall under the GOTRVT umbrella. Now, GOTRVT programs stretch across Bennington County, from the Dorset School down to Pownal Elementary.

"It's amazing to see these girls [that participate]," said Zemianek, who is now a guidance counselor at Shaftsbury Elementary and a coach there. "They love the program, they live by the program. Some of them in the sixth grade, they base their choices on the lesson they learned."

And that goes back to Heydinger's, and Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker's, original theory -- to use the curriculum to help girls feel the confidence within themselves.

Heydinger first heard about GOTR when she attended a Women's Sports Foundation conference in Washington, D.C., in 1999.

Talking at a table with a group of women, Heydinger was after some sort of tool to try and teach her young daughters about self-empowerment, something that Heydinger didn't have the option of learning growing up. She was handed a brochure about Barker's program, GOTR, and two months later she was in Charlotte, in Baker's living room, learning about the curriculum Barker had in her program.

A year later, Heydinger started the program at Vernon. A year after that, and schools in the Brattleboro area were picking up the curriculum. Commence the snowball effect.

By 2010, GOTRVT had extended to over 100 schools. Now, the growth has gotten so big that what started as one 5K walk/run to culminate the program has turned into three races throughout the state, with numbers at each site continuing the grow.

The GOTR curriculum is broken into two sections, and is uniform in message across the 48 states GOTR is in and in Canada. There is Girls on the Run, which is focused on third-to-fifth grade students, then Girls on Track, which focuses on girls in grades six through eight. The program itself -- which culminates with the runs -- is now a 10-to-12 week program that features 24 lessons. Twice a week after school, each school's program meets and goes over the assigned lesson for the day. The topics run the gamut of a young girl's development, including lessons encouraging positive emotional, social, mental and physical development. Through the curriculum, girls participate in running exercises while learning about the day's subject. While running is a key aspect of the program, the coaches mask the physical activity by focusing on mental tasks, as well.

"We put [running] out there as the small piece to entice them and get them in," said Nikki Dockum, who has taught the GOTRVT program at both Sacred Heart Elementary School and in Shaftsbury. "We do little running games so they don't realize they are building their endurance and their running. Then we tell them they are going to run a 5K and they say ‘no, I can't do that.' Well, yes, you can, and we are going to get you there. You bring them in thinking it's a small piece, but it's huge at the end."

The races themselves are so important because, besides being a way to bring all of the GOTR participants to one place to celebrate their accomplishments, the act of actually running the race is the final lesson in self-confidence, and getting the girls to feel that they can do anything they put their mind to.

"Whether they run, walk, skip, hop, it doesn't matter. It's all about person goals," said Robyn Bashaw, the program manager for GOTRVT. "The curriculum guides them right through it."

"What we love is that they learn to recognize, celebrate and embrace who they are themselves," added Heydinger.

Another key aspect of the 5K races is that they are not timed.

"The non-competitiveness of the program is key," Heydinger said. "It's all about teamwork and team building. We call it a 5K run/walk, but it is an event [more than a race]."

The first race GOTRVT put on was in Brattleboro. From there, the group added a run up north, starting in Burlington before hopping around to a few different sites -- as more runners started coming -- before settling in Essex Junction at the Champlain Valley Expo. Last year, with the numbers still swelling at the two locations, GOTRVT looked for another place to host a run, and settled on the Vermont State Fairgrounds in Rutland.

"Brattleboro and Essex just got too big," Heydinger said. "So we were looking for another place. Rutland has really grown for us. We were looking for a site for 500 people and up to 1,000. Last year we got over 2,000 people there."

The Rutland 5K was held Saturday, May 31, at the fairgrounds, while the 5K in Essex will happen on June 7.

Dockum and her students went to the Brattleboro run this year, which was ran on May 17, and she described the day as "perfect."

"Brattleboro was perfect. Blue skies and the energy was amazing," Dockum said. "We have been when it was 90 degrees, and we have been in the pouring rain, and it is always a wonderful experience no matter the weather. I think the girls are just happy to be there and [Heydinger] creates such a wonderful environment."

And that environment Heydinger creates, along with the work behind the scenes from the staff at GOTRVT, helps to keep a majority of the girls that participate in the program coming back -- even well after the get to high school.

"The oldest girls [that were in GOTRVT] are my daughter's age now (25), and we have a lot of them come back and coach," Heydinger said. "Wherever they are, they will seek out GOTR and coach. That's really cool. College girls come back and volunteer for us, college guys come back and volunteer for us."

Dockum, who is the owner/director at the Farmhouse Nursery School in Bennington, has gotten to see what GOTRVT does for girls in a unique was, as she was a coach for her daughter.

"I tell [Heydinger and Bashaw] I feel selfish in a way because GOTR has given me so many tools to use with my daughter at home," Dockum said. "It has given me a lot of mom skills and the appropriateness of how to handle girl issues. I have benefited from it as much as she has."

On Bashaw's end, the affect GOTRVT has on its coaches is just as impactful for her as it does on the girls.

"When coaches are thanking me, thanking me for what the program has done for them, [that's what means the most to me]," Bashaw said. "They take away just as much from being a coach as the girls take away from the curriculum. It makes me feel great, but I'm saying to them ‘no, thank you! Because without you, this doesn't happen.'"

The reach of GOTRVT also goes beyond that of just those involved in the program, and can be best highlighted with the action of a group of Bennington-area runners.

When local educator, and marathon runner, Gail Harwood -- whose husband was Jim Harwood -- passed away earlier this year, the group that she trained with, Training for More, sent a donation of more than $1,200 to GOTRVT with one stipulation -- the funds be used to supports girls in Bennington County.

The donations amounted to the cost of 15 GOTRVT scholarships, opening the door for more young girls to find the love of running that Harwood developed.

"That they wanted to honor Gail and pass her passion down and allow other girls to have that gift of running, that gift that Gail had and that gift that all those women feel ... I was taken aback," Dockum said.

While Gail Harwood was never a coach for GOTRVT, Heydinger described her as "like a member" of the GOTRVT family. Harwood is also a source of inspiration for Dockum, who walked the final 13 miles of the Shires of Vermont Marathon in 2013 with Harwood in what was Harwood's final marathon and credits Harwood with helping her develop her teaching philosophy.

Those types of impacts are all Heydinger ever wanted when she started GOTRVT.

"That we are impacting them, that is the greatest [feeling]," Heydinger said. "We do get to see [the progress], because we see it in the girls at the 5Ks. We hear it from the families, we hear it from the schools. The fact that these schools want us in their communities, and their communities want GOTR, that's so rewarding to us, to me."

And that's a feeling that will never go away.

To learn more about GOTRVT and ways you can help, visit their website: www.girlsontherunvermont.org.

Geoff Smith is the assistant sports editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, ext. 120, by email at gsmith@benningtonbanner.com, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.


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