A Magazine from California State University, ChicoSpring 2016 Issue

Unleashing 'Star Power'

Angela Antenucci, a member of Gamma Phi Beta, paints a runner’s face before the fall 5k event.

Alumni and campus community empower youth through Girls on the Run

The lessons we teach in Girls on the Run about standing up for who you are and being confident in who you are translate into your entire life.

There are always tears. 

In that moment when small sneakers leap across that finish line, after pounding pavement for 3.1 grueling and exhilarating miles, legs weary and hearts bursting with pride, it’s inevitable to see a few tear-streaked smiles.

Sometimes it’s a mom. Sometimes it’s a coach. Sometimes it’s the runner herself, because until today, she didn’t know for sure that she could do it—or how incredibly empowered she would feel after this run.

But it isn’t just any run—it’s Girls on the Run.

Supporters of this national afterschool program envision a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams. For many, the mission is not just a philosophy but a way of life.

“I think the lessons we teach in Girls on the Run about standing up for who you are and being confident in who you are translate into your entire life,” said Brooke Banks (BS, Instructional Technology, ’93; MBA, ’08). “You can relate to being a 9-year-old girl but you can also relate to being a 40-year-old woman and having feelings of inadequacy and being unsure. You have to accept yourself for who you are and love yourself for your strengths—we can’t be reminded about it enough.”

It was Banks, Chico State’s associate vice provost for information resources, who brought the program to Butte County in 2010 in hopes it would help her own daughter be healthy, joyful, and confident. 

What began with just 29 girls has grown into Girls on the Run of the North State, serving more than 400 girls in Butte, Glenn, Shasta, and Tehama Counties each spring and fall. The university community has celebrated along the way.

A physical activity-based youth development program, Girls on the Run (GOTR) focuses on core values such as empowerment, responsibility, gratitude, and intention. Girls in third- through fifth-grades meet after school twice a week for 12 weeks for a mixture of running and experience-based curriculum. 

At the season’s conclusion, participants complete a 5K running event that gives each girl a tangible sense of accomplishment.

In achieving what seemed impossible just months before, they realize there are no limits, no constraints—only opportunities to be remarkable.

Lessons blend physical workouts with thoughtful discussion that focuses on three principles:

infographic: Lessons blend physical workouts with thoughtful discussion.

The curriculum, paired with helping girls realize their physical potential, results in real changes at a developmentally critical time for many of the young participants.

Up and Running

In 2009, Banks completed her MBA at Chico State and was looking for a new project.

“I had just finished my first 5K. When I crossed the finish line, I was overcome by the sense of accomplishment you get when you do something you didn’t think you could ever do,” she said. “I wanted to funnel that energy somewhere. I felt like I could do anything.”

She wanted others—and especially her then-8-year-old daughter—to share in that feeling. 

When she heard about Girls on the Run International, which serves more than 165,000 girls in 200-plus cities, she partnered with Kristina Smith (BA, Liberal Studies, ’99), owner of Fleet Feet Chico, to begin the process of establishing a local council. 

The process was akin to composing a master’s thesis, Banks said. She conducted extensive research on the community and its needs, rates of poverty, youth drug abuse, and teen pregnancy; identified every school in the area; and raised $7,500 through community donations to launch the program. 

Meanwhile, she found people such as Smith, health and community services professor Jen Skinner, and Sheila Murray (BA, Information and Communication Studies, ’88) to join her newly formed board for a Butte County chapter of Girls on the Run. 

Since then, 12 of its 17 board members have been alumni or employees of Chico State, and the University has proved a rich resource for supporters, coaches, and other volunteers, including students. For some, it’s a chance to serve their community. For others, it’s an opportunity to work with children as they pursue careers in physical education, health, and teaching.

Board member Melissa Stearns, a health specialist at the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC) on campus, says she supports GOTR because it aligns with the center’s mission to foster “empowerment, mindfulness, innovation, and fun.” 

“Those are the core values we find most important, and those totally hit what Girls on the Run is all about. It’s a perfect partnership,” said Stearns (BS, Health Science, ’92; MS, Interdisciplinary Studies, ’97). 

Stearns recalls hearing about a young girl with selective mutism who, after more than a year of silence, began speaking again because of her interactions with her Oroville school’s GOTR team. And a Chico girl who was nearly blind demonstrated a remarkable boost in confidence after she successfully trained and completed the 5K with the support of her teammates last spring. 

For CHC nutrition education specialist Jennifer Murphy, the opportunity to reach girls on this level is compelling. 

“There are so many great messages—the inner beauty, the empowerment, your ‘star power,’” said Murphy (BS, Nutrition and Food Science, ’04; MS, Nutritional Science, ’06). “It’s presented in a way that the girls get it, and I’m even applying it at home.”

As an assistant GOTR coach at her daughter Olivia’s Chico elementary school, Murphy tackles topics such as bullying, real beauty, and true friendship.

 “It’s not like it’s one season of a sport,” she said. “It’s something that is going to forever affect these girls’ lives. I think it’s super cool for Chico State to be part of it because they are being part of something that is making lasting change and ultimately building up strong, powerful, confident women that will bring more to the community when they become older.”

Runners cross the finish line at the Girls on the Run of the North State's fall 2015 5k event in Bidwell Park.

Runners cross the finish line at the Girls on the Run of the North State's fall 2015 5k event in Bidwell Park.

Mutual Empowerment

Gamma Phi Beta sorority stepped up to serve GOTR in 2014. The Chico State sorority was looking for a service project, and members thought there was no better way than to support the mentorship of young women. 

“In Gamma Phi Beta, our philanthropic mission is to build strong girls,” said junior Kelly Carson. “We believe that Girls on the Run is an organization that strives to do the same thing.”

This spring, the sorority has 188 members—all of whom play a role. Some are interns, some are coaches, and some will spread cheer and confidence on the day of the 5K with face paint, glitter, and words of encouragement. 

Carson, who is majoring in child development with a minor in special education, said the experience has prepared her for working as a teacher.

“While Girls on the Run is building these great characteristics in young girls, it is building great characteristics in us, too,” Carson said. “Regardless of what major we have or what path we want to go into, volunteering with Girls on the Run gives all of us a taste of what it would be like in wherever life is leading us.”

Students of all disciplines—kinesiology, education, psychology, recreation, nursing, and business, among others—can and do find value in getting involved, she said. 

Girls on the Run was Muretta Polhlopek’s first real exposure to working with children. A health science major with aspirations to go to nursing school, she said the experience—especially as a coach—has been so remarkable that she now aspires to work in pediatrics.

Like the girls on her team, she also has been changed by the experience.

“In a sense, it makes me want to be a better person and a stronger woman,” Polhlopek said. 

It’s invaluable to help these girls when they are young, the sorority members said. 

“I know it took me 21 years to kind of maybe figure out who I am as a person and what kind of woman I want to be,” Polhopek said. “If you learn it at a younger age, there are so many lessons you don’t have to learn the hard way.”

“Women have come a long way in our society, but at the same time, we still have a long way to go,” Carson added. “Fostering independence and confidence in young girls will foster a generation of strong leaders in our society.”

Angela Antenucci, a member of Gamma Phi Beta, paints a runner’s face before the fall 5k event.

Angela Antenucci, a member of Gamma Phi Beta, paints a runner’s face before the fall 5k event.

Force Behind the Finish

Journalism alum Claire Johnson (BA, ’89) is executive director of Girls on the Run of the North State. She explains she is motivated, in part, by a vision.

“Five to 10 years from now, I picture girls in a dorm and they are talking to each other and they find out they did Girls on the Run in totally different areas. We are giving them a whole new way to speak 
to each other and a way to support each other and lift each other up,” she said. 

The lessons also promote the connection between hard work and an eventual payout—another valuable life lesson, Johnson said. 

“I love the connection between the University and the girls because, for a lot of them, they don’t know somebody in their family who has gone to college,” she said. “The role model we are providing is huge.”

Johnson, who had previously worked in public relations, said her role with Girls on the Run puts her Chico State degree to work every day. Whether managing volunteers, soliciting community sponsors, planning events, or working with parents, her goal is to continue to grow the program and serve more girls.

Coach Jennifer Murphy, a 2004 alumna and a nutrition education specialist at Chico State’s Center  for Healthy Communities, discusses a lesson during practice with her team.

Coach Jennifer Murphy, a 2004 alumna and a nutrition education specialist at Chico State’s Center for Healthy Communities, discusses a lesson during practice with her team.

“I view Girls on the Run as a movement, and I feel we are unlocking girls’ self-esteem. I get stories every single semester that fuel me for the next one,” Johnson said. “Even if it’s just that they are shy and they are suddenly speaking up in class, or they have a really tough home life and this is a program where they can be free.”

Stearns said her desire to remain a part of GOTR stems from her first exposure to the program four years ago. 

Her eyes lit up as she described completing the race as a running buddy, surrounded by a swarm of young girls in tutus and face paint, cheering loud enough to be heard blocks away. In that moment, she witnessed a dream achieved for a girl whom she first met a mere 3.1 miles before.

“We get to the finish line and she grabs my hand and says, ‘OK, this is what we are going to do, we are going to raise our hands and we are going to yell, “Girls on the Run is so much fun!” Are you with me?’ And I said, I got it,” she recalled. “We got to the finish line and she grabs my hand and I started crying. I thought, I am in love with this!”

coach's notebook

“Girls on the Run is…So! Much! Fun!”

Part anthem, part battle cry, it’s an identity—and it sucked me in whole-heartedly when I witnessed my first practice in spring 2014. Since then, I’ve been both running buddy and coach, and consider myself forever changed. 

Don’t praise me for my support, because it’s entirely selfish. I get as much out of the program as the participants because Girls on the Run is more than “fun.” 

It’s a twice-weekly lesson in the power of realizing your potential, in the need to claim your uniqueness with pride, in the potential of supporting your peers instead of knocking them down, and the fact than anything is possible when you set your mind to it. 

Most importantly, it’s the miracle of witnessing a transformation. It’s when an overweight girl can’t stop smiling when she runs a whole lap without stopping, or when an introverted girl who hates her appearance giggles when the team decides her nickname will be “Freckles.” Or, one of my personal favorites, when a girl kindly corrects a teammate for using negative self-talk and instead reminds her “You’re a star!” It’s an important lesson, because we all need to let our stars shine bright. 

I’ve coached at schools filled with students from privileged backgrounds and also those whose playgrounds are filled with underprivileged youth who don’t realize how high they can aspire or the power in being themselves. The changes and impact the program has on this next generation of women is profound. 

What’s remarkable is how quickly the girls begin to recognize and revel in the message. A few lessons ago, I used a marker to write a letter on the girls’ hands for every lap they did, spelling out a mystery message as they tracked their laps. As the words began to come together, my superstar sleuths began trying to solve it. 

With just “I can” imprinted, they shouted “I can do it!” and “I can accomplish anything!” When it became “I can c---,” they cried out “I can challenge myself!” and “I can change my attitude!”

When the final message read “I can choose,” the answer had been in their suggestions all along. Because whether they choose to “Be a listener!”, “Be grateful!”, or—another personal favorite—“Do anything!”, the brilliant truth was that they all had the power of choice. They can choose to be confident. They can choose to be compassionate. They can choose to connect with their community.

And me? I’m glad I chose Girls on the Run.

About the author
Ashley Gebb (BA, Journalism, ’08) is publications editor at CSU, Chico.