By Erin Haas
Bucher Elementary’s GOTR girls form a victory tunnel to cheer each other on as they complete a practice run. In tunnel: Leah Cook, Emily Sorensen (head down), and Avery Peffer. Human tunnel: Elizabeth Gics (front left) and fifth-grader Quinn Peffer (front right).
Most schools discourage running in the halls, but at 4 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, you’ll find a group of girls sprinting down the wide corridors of Bucher Elementary School in Lancaster. They’re members of Girls on the Run of Lancaster, a nonprofit organization for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls that couples 5K training with lessons in self-respect and healthy living.
Executive Director Carrie Johnson began Girls on the Run of Lancaster, an independent chapter of Girls on the Run International, in 2009 with fellow mom and runner Jennifer West. Their first season began with just 25 girls. This season, 450 are enrolled.
The girls meet after school twice a week for 10 weeks to exercise, play interactive games and participate in a curriculum designed to build confidence. “We use running as the tool to move the lesson forward, but we’re not a running program—we’re a character development program,” Johnson says.
Judy Sides and Judy Bollinger, who coach Bucher Elementary School’s two teams and have daughters in the program, agree that running is secondary to what girls learn through the curriculum. “It’s about having fun together, getting to know people really well, talking about things and incorporating running at the same time,” Sides says. “[It’s about] getting to know yourself and what’s important to you.”
Each practice starts with lessons and games that promote good health and self-esteem. At the end of each practice, the girls run laps, gradually increasing their distance to the 3.2 miles they’ll run at the end of the season. But it’s not a competitive environment—each girl sets her own pace. “We have a lot of girls who walk, who skip, who cartwheel across the finish line,” Johnson says. “We celebrate the girl who takes an hour and a half as much as we celebrate the girl who did it in 30 minutes—it’s not about speed, it’s about crossing that line.”
The program has been gaining momentum in central Pennsylvania. The York YWCA sponsors a GOTR affiliate council and Dauphin and Cumberland counties will have a chapter starting this fall. In Lancaster County, Bucher Elementary is just one of 30 participating schools.
Some of the Bucher Elementary runners—like Sides’ daughter, Helena Ritchie, a fourth-grader, and Quinn Peffer, a fifth-grader—have run 5Ks before, but most of the girls are looking forward to running their first at the New Balance Girls on the Run 5K at Franklin & Marshall College on May 7.
Quinn’s sister Avery, a third-grader, also participates in the program. Both girls play soccer, but Avery says she enjoys Girls on the Run more. “[We learn to] cooperate with others, and to listen, and … to work together to figure stuff out,” she says. “I want to do it next [season], too.”
Erin Haas is a mother and freelance writer from Lancaster.