APRIL 2, 2019 — When school lets out this week, dozens of young girls in Sitka are going to start warming up. They’re going to run, pacing themselves and setting goals for completed laps. They’re practicing for something big.
On May 18, 2019, this Girls on the Run team will finish a Community 5K Fun Run that takes them along Sitka’s harbor and ends among the spruce, hemlock and towering totem poles of Sitka National Historic Park.
But they’re really practicing for something even bigger, said coach Shadeed Miller. They’re building skills for the rest of their lives.
Some of those skills set them up for a lifetime of fitness and a better chance for physical health. But other skills set these girls up for the other key ingredients of well-rounded health that go beyond the physical, to social and emotional growth.
“I want them to have a sense of pride in themselves, in each other and community,” said Miller, who works for Sitkans Against Family Violence. He said he hopes these girls discover their “limitless potential.”
Girls on the Run is a national program that promotes physical activity while also empowering girls, Miller said. During the course of the three-month program, Girls on the Run focuses on helping girls build confidence, strength of character, and positive connections with others; care and show compassion for others; improve their competence in many areas; and contribute to their community, Miller said. Sixteen communities across Alaska are participating in the program this year, said Natalie Watson, coordinator for Girls on the Run of Greater Alaska. Sitka’s 11th season started in February and ends with the Fun Run in May. This year, 33 third- through fifth-grade Sitka girls are participating. There’s a cost for the season, but Miller stressed there’s also a scholarship program funded by Sitka organizations and individuals to ensure money doesn’t stand in the way of any girl who wants to participate.
Play Every Day features the Sitka Girls on the Run Team in its newest video that shows the fun ways kids across Alaska play every day in all seasons and every kind of weather: snow, cold temperatures, sun, and in the case of Sitka — often rain. In this video, the Sitka girls run through the Sitka national park, past totem poles and across a finish line where their friends are ready for high-fives and congratulations.
During the Girls on the Run season, practice begins each afternoon with discussions about what the girls think of themselves, as well as issues they may be facing socially, such as gossiping and bullying. The program helps girls learn how to be intentional with their decisions, choose to be happy, feel good about themselves, and stand up for themselves and others, Miller said. It helps them strengthen their physical abilities and complete their final challenge: the Community 5K Fun Run through nature.
“If you literally take one step after the next and put good intention into it, you can change so much of your life — and for the better,” Miller said.
Taking one step after another through nature is something Miller knows firsthand, and he uses that as an example with the girls when they’re struggling.
In 2016, Miller said he chose to step away from his job at the time and challenge himself in a different way. Even though he hadn’t camped since he was a Boy Scout, he started hiking and camping along the entire Appalachian Trail in April 2016. He started in Georgia and walked 2,189 miles through 14 states, ending in Maine on September 25, 2016. He started walking all by himself, but along the way met hikers who walked with him much of the time. His personal experience became social. These hikers finished together and remain friends for life, he said.
“All I was doing was walking, each and every day,” Miller said. But that commitment to walking changed him physically, mentally and emotionally. It forced him to listen to his body and how he was feeling, he said.
When he’s running with the Girls on the Run, he listens for any shred of doubt from the young participants.
"'Hey, you are moving forward,’” he tells them. ”'And that’s all that counts.’”
He tells them about what it took to complete an almost six-month hike. He looks first for that disbelief on their faces, and then the realization that they got this — just like he did.
"'Ok,’” the girls realize. "'I can do this.’”
Sitka: Mark May 18, 2019, on your calendars, because 33 girls are going to do this, and you can be there to cheer them on.