Girls on the Run: Combining Social, Emotional, and Physical Learning

Published May 24, 2021 at 4:12pm.
Story by Kira Woodfield-Leeper. Photos by Josie Gammett.

Cynthia Kahn joined Dallas-Fort Worth’s Council of Girls on the Run as executive director in October 2020. Coming from a background in dietetics and marketing, Girls on the Run was a new adventure. Cynthia relocated to Dallas from Chicago after visiting the area while her daughter was planning her wedding in Uptown a few years ago. A different pace than her previous lifestyle in both Chicago and London, Cynthia fell in love with Dallas and knew she wanted the area to be her next home.

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Girls on the Run is not just another athletics club. The research-based eight to ten-week program incorporates social, emotional learning through physical activity. A study was conducted on the program out of the University of Minnesota by Kinesiology professor Maureen Weiss. About the program Maureen says, “It’s an empowerment program using running as the vehicle for teaching life skills.” Each lesson teaches an aspect of social-emotional learning.

Examples of topics taught include the positive nurturing of physical, emotional, spiritual health; respect for your body; embracing differences in people; expressing joy and gratitude; and having intentional positive decision-making in your life. These learning experiences happen through game-based activities such as running-around cones. Every week the physical engagement element increases. At the end of the program, there is an area-wide celebratory 5K.  “It’s not a race.” Cynthia says. “It’s a fun run and a tangible way [for the girls] to say ‘I did this, I completed this program.’”

The Dallas-Fort Worth Council of Girls on the Run, an independent nonprofit, started in 2005. Now they program oversees sites at local schools in nine counties across the metroplex from Rockwall to Burleson. They send letters to schools and other organizations that may be interested in hosting a site. Coaches are recruited and trained, and girls participate in the after-school program. The program runs third through fifth grade, and many girls choose to repeat the program in subsequent years. Demand for continued access led to the creation of “Heart and Soles,” a leveled-up program that supports girls sixth through eighth grade.

Girls on the Run uses sponsorship support to help them never turn away a girl from the program due to lack tuition funds. Currently, 55% of participants are on a scholarship. Donations through individuals and corporate fundraising keep this program alive locally. Because Dallas-Fort Worth is a local council of Girls on the Run, all funds raised here in Dallas-Fort Worth stay in Dallas-Fort Worth, and no financial support comes from the national Girls on the Run organization. 

Speaking to the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Cynthia says, “It was very difficult to start in this role during a pandemic, but I love a good challenge. I love to see where there’s a hole or an opportunity, and I like to run with something they’ve never seen before,” which the pandemic allowed her to do due to the required flexibility of canceled in-person events and groups. This new moment for Girls on the Run has seen an increased effort in digital marketing aimed to show the community what Girls on the Run is all about. Cynthia says, “we are seeing as we engage [on social media] young women who are wanting to empower the next generation of girls and be involved.” Cynthia has introduced an internship program and specialized committees to the local Dallas-Fort Worth Council to help bring in the expertise of the community to support the organization’s goals and help mentor the next generation of young leaders.

Cynthia Kahn (middle) with her two daughters, Elizabeth Patten and Dr. Natalie Kahn.

Cynthia Kahn (middle) with her two daughters, Elizabeth Patten and Dr. Natalie Kahn.

“Over and over again, after learning about the program, women are saying, I wish I had had this program when I was younger, for it would have given me more confidence to be myself,” Cynthia says. New to the program this year was a virtual Community 5K fundraiser. The program and fundraiser aim to help more people understand how important emotional mental and physical health really is for overall  well-being.

This year’s Celebratory 5K was on April 24. The Girls on the Run team kept the events smaller and localized to individual sites instead of one large area comprehensive event. While they look forward to returning to big celebratory 5K’s, the girls were surrounded by friends and family championing each other as they finished the last milestone in the program, the 5K!

Jennifer Ibarra- Girls on the Run DFW Operations Coordinator

Jennifer Ibarra- Girls on the Run DFW Operations Coordinator

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Cynthia says she loves Dallas because “It is a butterfly coming out of its cocoon…attracting people from everywhere. There is so much influence from all over the country and world coming to Dallas, and I love seeing the flavor of different things evolving, primarily in the restaurant and art scene.”

If you are interested in supporting Girls on the Run, they are always looking for community support and financial donations to provide scholarships. They also welcome specialized volunteers such as grant writers and marketers to join their committees.

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