In Marblehead, there are seven women who volunteer 12 weeks of the year to encourage young girls to “run, read, and lead.” Jennie Sheridan is one of them. Started in 2012, Fit Girls is now in its fifth year at the Village School. “Over a year ago, we were asked if we would be willing to take over the national program,” says Sheridan, adding, “We were the biggest participating group at the time.” They said yes, and have been running strong ever since.
The mission of Fit Girls is to give young girls the tools they need “to navigate the world with a strong sense of self and compassion for their community through reading, running, and service.” Nearly 100 girls participate two days per week for six weeks; there are two sessions—one in the fall and another come spring. They meet for an hour and fifteen minutes, during which time they train for a 5K run and learn some important life lessons in an all-inclusive, nonjudgmental environment.
The after-school program was designed for fourth and fifth graders—the idea being to create “healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy hearts.” The girls learn fitness techniques intended to prepare them for the race, and they read from books with strong female characters to instill in them another kind of strength. Fit Girls Marblehead has reworked the national program’s curriculum, and is looking to share the list of books they have compiled with other chapters—part of an overall rebranding effort “to make more of a Fit Girls community across the country.” The books they choose deliver messages like “Be your own kind of beautiful,” “Be independent,” and “Don’t compare yourself to others.” The girls participate in group discussions and prepare book presentations in the name of figuring out their own personal best. They talk a lot about individuality, achieving one’s potential, and setting goals—conversations that help build confidence. Sheridan notes that the girls respond very favorably to the idea of not comparing themselves to others, and being happy with who they are.
Program participants learn that a healthy lifestyle includes a strong sense of community. As a group, they work to develop service projects that have included book drives and bake sales for organizations like One Fund, New England Disabled Sports, and Stepping Stones for Stella. For the past two years, the coaching team has been looking for ways to engage the girls more actively (versus straight fundraising). For example, last fall they helped homeowners with leaf cleanup, assisting elderly or disabled individuals, as well as others with special circumstances. “We divided up and went all over the community,” recalls Sheridan. “For some girls, it was their favorite part of the season.”
The Marblehead chapter’s spring 5K—Run for the Funds—raises money for needs-based scholarships. In the fall, they host the Full Hearts 5K. “We view that as a fundraiser for our programs,” says Sheridan. “It’s really fun for the girls to run from their school, and community service is built in. It’s something we have been really proud of for the last two seasons.”
Sheridan stresses that Fit Girls is an easy-to-start and flexible program. “It’s something that can be incorporated in any community.” The program can be adapted for all group sizes, whether it’s seven girls or 100. At its inception, 25 girls trained to run/walk a local 5K race while raising funds and awareness for a local animal shelter. South Shore–based founder Sarah Nixon ultimately decided it was a program that could be expanded to serve other communities; it can be run from recreation or community centers, schools, running clubs—really anywhere. Today, students at the Village School, Marblehead Community Charter Public School, and Tower School, and fourth and fifth graders in Swampscott now have access to Fit Girls programs.
It is evident from the looks on the faces of girls crossing the finish line that Fit Girls is a powerfully effective program. Their obvious sense of accomplishment is heartening. Thanks to seven volunteers in Marblehead, there are a good number of young girls learning how to be healthy, brave, and compassionate.
Fit Girls Run Club Marblehead