Of the many core values taught through Girls on the Run, gratitude is one of Molly Barker’s favorites.
It’s one she teaches by example.
Barker choked up on the phone last week, when asked to reflect on her accomplishment: creating a program that has reached more than 400,000 girls in their early adolescent years.
“I would say that I’m honored by all the men and women who have come on board,” she said, pausing for tears. “What a privilege to explore these things with all these people.
“I feel a burden in some ways to be at the forefront, but it’s a gift to be with so many people.”
Barker will share that gift in Milwaukee on Thursday night, during a panel discussion on running and a celebration of the Girls on the Run program in Milwaukee. The event in the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center opens at 6 p.m. (Click here for details).
Barker will be the star.
She founded Girls on the Run in 1996, and guided it from the first group of 13 girls to one with chapters in 150 cities. More than 100,000 girls, ages 8-12, participated last year.
Now a mother of two, Barker still identifies with the pre-teen girls and the pressures they face to live up to expectations based on physical appearance and popularity. Growing up in North Carolina, “a southern woman,” Barker found that so much was rooted in appearance, “success getting the right man, getting the right job.”
She started running herself to break out of that girl box, then put her training in education and social work into practice to help change the way girls think.
“I wanted to provide a safe space, emotionally and physically, for girls to express and experience their whole self,” Barker said.
As they approach middle school and the start of adolescence, the girls are forming opinions and values, and being influenced by pop culture and their peers. They’re still willing to listen, though, to the “voice of an eccentric, wonderful aunt,” the 37,000 volunteer coaches who teach and train.
Running isn’t the lesson, but the vehicle that delivers it.
Girls train for 12 weeks to run a 5K race. Each session includes a lesson: topics such as self-image, respect for others and critical thinking.
“One girl told me that Girls on the Run ‘helps me be the boss of my own brain,’” Barker related, in explaining the overall purpose.
“I think what she captured there was this notion that rather than going with what’s around us, we critically observe things and make a decision based on our own beliefs,” she said. “It’s become more about all the thoughts we have, not just about our bodies, but why am I acting this way, or think this way.
“We’re getting girls to examine why they think they’re not good enough, or not pretty enough.”
Running teaches them that a thoughtful, intentional act will be rewarded.
If you go: A limited number of tickets for the event are still available: $35 in advance and $40 at the door. In addition to the panel discussion, the attractions include a live raffle, appetizers, beer and soda, and a silent auction.
Panelists include Kristine Hinrichs, race director of the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, Roy Pirrung, a national ultra running champion, and local writer and runner Tom Held. Jen Lada, sports reporter for WITI-TV Fox6 News, will be the emcee.