Mequon — Like many of us who have sweated it out on the treadmill or track, Karen Rader and Amy Bongard have a love-hate relationship with running.
But, as they'll tell you, they focus on the love.
Rader was visiting friends in California a few years back when she ran in a 5K sponsored by nonprofit Girls on the Run. The nonprofit, founded in 1996, organizes elementary and middle school-age girls into groups with the goal of helping each girl embrace her individual strengths.
Her interest piqued by her experience in California, Rader sought out Bongard — who was, at the time, her eldest daughter's first-grade teacher at Donges Bay Elementary — and the pair started their own Girls on the Run chapter in Mequon last year.
Gain strength throughout
The 12-week, after school program culminates in an almost metaphorical 5K run/walk, during which the girls learn just how strong they really are.
"The 5K is powerful," Bongard says. "I don't think many of them feel like they can do it, but when they do cross that finish line, they feel that accomplishment."
As the group of 15 girls run — literally — through the GOTR curriculum, working out at Donges Bay Elementary and sharing positive attitudes and outlooks among each other, they lay the foundations for social and emotional growth, Bongard says, and thwarting peer pressure and the negativity commonplace in pop culture.
"At this age, girls can start focusing on the negatives," Bongard says. "Our philosophy is to keep moving, keep going forward, keep building that strength."
As the program progresses, the girls become healthier, more outgoing and more confident, say Rader and Bongard, who report seeing the girls socializing between grades — a big deal when it comes to a third grade girl making friends in the fourth and fifth grades.
But it isn't for themselves alone that the girls have been working.
Helping other kids
At the same 5K in California where Rader learned about the program, Pam French of Glendale ran alongside her goddaughter, Gabby Howe, of Napa, Calif., who was 13 at the time.
Not long after the run, Gabby was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
After brain surgery at St. Jude hospital in Memphis and nine weeks of follow-up radiation treatment, Gabby was "essentially cured," reports Pam's husband and Gabby's godfather, Bob French, an area emergency room physician.
Inspired by the positivity of Girls on the Run and miraculous work of the doctors at St. Jude, Bob French offered to donate $10 for each rainbow bracelet — an accessory woven of many tiny plastic ringlets — the Mequon Girls on the Run group made last week to "Team Gabby," a group that will walk later this month in San Francisco at a 5K fundraiser for St. Jude.
After a lot of laughing and weaving and working together, the girls netted more than $500 for the cause, to which Bob French will donate in person later this month.
"I really enjoyed the enthusiasm, it was just brimming, as they were making the bracelets," Bob French says. "They taught me how to make a bracelet. It's not the best of the group, but it will do."
The Howes will hand out the bracelets to Team Gabby at the 5K in San Francisco. Gabby herself will sport a special bracelet, made in the orange and white theme colors of Girls on the Run.
"(St. Jude) is a very impressive place, and we really bought into their mission statement of being able to help all kids, regardless of their ability to pay," Bob French says. "We really got personally very close to that hospital, and we're happy to help them fundraise."
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