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Runner gets girls running

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Girls on the Run aims to build self-esteem.

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. [04.12.04]  — Molly Barker started running, and drinking, at age 15.

Now 43, the former marathoner, high school chemistry teacher, social worker and substance-abuse counselor has been sober 10 years.

In vowing to stop drinking, she also resolved to try to help young girls clear the hurdles that had tripped her up.

That idea, which took shape in the fall of 1996 as a 12-week program for 13 third- and fourth-graders at Charlotte Country Day School, Barker’s alma mater, has grown into a network of 96 local groups in 43 states that have worked to gear 35,000 girls ages 8 through 10 for life.

The growth of Girls on the Run, which Barker says has tracked big boosts in self-esteem among girls in the program, also prompted her to write a book.

In “Girls on Track,” published in paperback March 31 by Random House, she tells the tale of her journey, and offers a one-on-one Girls on the Run program for a girl and someone close to her.

Barker also is booked for three stops on a four-city “Hi Gorgeous” tour sponsored by O magazine that its founder, Oprah Winfrey, will headline in April and May to celebrate women’s “internal beauty.”

Barker will miss the tour’s May 8 visit to Kansas City, Mo., because she will be in Charlotte for the 8th annual Girls on the Run 5K, which this year is sponsored by Bank of America and is expected to attract over 1,000 participants.

Yet Barker, who has landed big sponsors such as New Balance, the Boston-based maker of running shoes, and runs a national organization with an annual budget of $500,000 and affiliates with local budgets of about $85,000, says she is “not a business brain.”

She credits board chair Patti Murphy, a former personnel executive at Bank of America, with helping to put the organization on a more business-like footing.

Girls on the Run, which also has received support from the Belk Foundation, plans to hire its first development director, and to create a network of regional directors to better support local affiliates and spearhead regional fundraising, Barker says.

Ultimately, the nonprofit’s focus is to help girls embrace life, says Barker, the divorced mother of an eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter.

At the heart of Girls on the Run is a 12-week “experiential-learning” program, which costs up to $140 based on a sliding scale, and consists of 24 after-school lessons featuring games girls can apply to their lives.

One lesson, “Being emotional is healthy,” asks girls to talk about their emotions, such as “joy” and “anger.”

“A lot girls are brought up that it’s not acceptable for girls to be angry, so they end up stuffing it inside,” Barker says, emotional curbs she says can lead to substance abuse, eating disorders and other mental and social problems.

Integrated into each lesson are running drills that aim to be both competitive and fun.

“Running has become a metaphor for running toward wholeness,” says Barker.

And runners can use a starting bell, she says.

“The only way to change is to change, and we don’t change unless we are pushed a little,” she says. “What we want to teach these girls is to get through the tough stuff. I don’t want to eliminate those challenges. It’s through the challenges that we become stronger and better people.”

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