Girls are pumped about lessons learned on the run

Third-grader Maddie Ruggeri and fourth-grader Eliza Kelly had just finished doing jumping jacks, running in place and laps inside the gym and playing a game that kept them moving. They were about to do more activities outside.

As participants in the Girls of the Run St. Louis program at St. Ambrose School in the "Hill" neighborhood of south St. Louis, they didn't want to talk about the fun exercises. Instead, they focused on the life lessons they were learning.

"I like it because girls can be themselves and express their feelings while having fun," Maddi said.

Eliza added, "You learn to handle bullying and other bad things. You can express how you feel without people saying mean things to you."

On April 25, the 19 girls in the third through fifth grades at the school formed a circle with their teacher-mentors and visitors — the coach and players from St. Louis University's women's basketball team. Kate Black, a middle-school teacher, led a discussion on choosing friends. "You want to be with those who make you feel like yourself," Black said. One of the basketball players added, "ones who bring out the best in you."

Girls on the Run St. Louis, a program in 30 Catholic schools in the archdiocese and more than 300 schools in eastern Missouri and western Illinois, teaches the girls about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and relationship with self and others. The 20-lesson Girls on the Run curriculum combines training for a 5k (3.1 miles) run with inspiration to become independent thinkers, enhance their problem-solving skills and make healthy decisions.

St. Ambrose and St. Margaret of Scotland School were selected for a practice with honorary race chair Lisa Stone, the SLU women's basketball team coach, and several of her players. Stone told the girls that the race they were to run in is "not about winning. It's about being the best version of yourself."

Stone later told the Review that as a college basketball coach, her job is to foster female leadership, and Girls on the Run does the same thing. Her players serve as role models for the girls, with eight of the 15 having 4.0 grade-point averages. "To see smiles on these young girls' faces is a true joy for all of us," she said.

Emily Geary, director of basketball operations at SLU, said the appearance of her players was meant to help inspire the students as they consider all they can accomplish. Incorporating physical activities with lessons is ideal, she said.

Cate Medeiros, program coordinator for Girls on the Run, agreed that the SLU players show how strong women can achieve much athletically and academically.

The St. Ambrose girls showed enthusiasm for each of the activities. They were at their loudest in doing a "banana cheer" that ended in "Go, go bananas."

Black, who leads the program with third-grade teacher Emily Elmore and help from first-grade teacher Maria Bergfeld and pre-kindergarten teacher Erin Mattern, is in her fourth season of coaching. "Even if I have a long day, when I come to Girls on the Run I get all powered up. I might come to practice feeling tired, but by the time it's over I'm completely pumped. Like today, the girls started singing with Coach Stone and you feel a vibe. Next thing you know, you realize you and the girls have run two miles together. The looks on their faces when they see what they've achieved is amazing." 

Leading the way

The elementary schools visited by St. Louis University Women's Basketball Coach Lisa Stone — St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Ambrose — are among 30 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis offering Girls on the Run programs in this year 's fall and spring program seasons.

Stone was the honorary race chair for the Girls on the Run 5k race May 7 starting at Soldiers' Memorial in downtown St. Louis. She is in her fourth season at the helm of the SLU women’s basketball program. The 2015-16 Billikens tied for the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship — the first league title in program history — and participated in the Women's National Invitation Tournament. The team set program records for total victories, conference victories, conference winning percentage and road wins. Last semester, the team achieved a cumulative GPA above 3.5.

Girls on the Run St. Louis is a nonprofit program for girls in the third through eighth grades that combines training for a celebratory 5k event with interactive lessons. Girls are empowered with positive self-awareness and increased confidence; a sense of achievement by training for a completing a 5k; and giving back to their community through a service project. Girls on the Run programs are volunteer-driven, and many of the volunteer coaches are school faculty, staff and parents.

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