RICHMOND, Va. -- It's common to see a grouping of third to fifth graders at Bensley Elementary School chanting "Girls on the run is so much fun!" as they head out of class and toward the playground.
Coupled with a series of stretches and warm-ups, it's a weekly ritual before hitting the track for a brisk run.
"We motivate other people, and they motivate us," said 8-year-old Sophia, who participates in Girls on the Run Greater Richmond, a youth development program based in schools and community sites that includes weekly practices and culminates with a 5K.
However, Sophia and her peers learn about so much more than physical fitness.
“I love that we learn about friendship," said a 9-year-old student named Imelda.
Through the curriculum, Imelda and Sophia became running mates and good friends. Together, they form bonds and build confidence, or star power, as they called it.
“Star power is when you believe in yourself," said Sophia. "And when we try to not have the clouds that cover us."
“We see a lot of need for girls to grow their confidence," said Board Chair of Girls on the Run Greater Richmond, Carrie Bartlett.
Bartlett explained mental health for boys and girls remains about equal during childhood, but when girls approach their teenage years, they face extra challenges. That's why Bartlett said it's crucial to uplift them.
“Girls’ self-confidence and self-esteem, how they feel about themselves, really takes a huge hit as they go into adolescence," she said. "So the more that we can do to support them, not only through mental health but also helping them with physical activity to see how those two are tied together, is so important."
That's where coaches like Sherika Scales, a counselor at Bensley Elementary, come in. During sessions, Scales emphasizes the importance of training both the body and brain and making sure the girls feel comfortable talking about their feelings.
"It allows them to know that they have someone to trust, and then they can also come and share their problems or ask questions," Scales said. "It's kind of like we became a little family."
One way Scales helps develop their communication skills is by conducting conflict-resolution exercises.
“We present scenarios to the students, and we give examples, and then we allow them to work it out," Scales said. "What are the bad choices? What are some different things that we could do to make this better? What if this comes up again? What should you not do? What should you do?"
For example, during a demonstration for CBS 6, a coach asked a girl what she would do if a friend talked about her behind her back. The student responded, "I would say do not ever do that again."
Scales said many of the skills the girls are learning may have been lost during the pandemic, even though the program continued virtually.
“To have someone else who's doing the same thing that may have experienced the same things in isolation, it's bringing them together," Scales said.
From counseling to exercising, all the efforts are proving to young girls that there are no limits to their star power or how strong their sisterhood can be.
"I have a friend to help me," Sophia said about Imelda. "When I'm feeling down, she keeps me going."
That friendship is what keeps her wanting to come back to the track.
“My parents have taken me to really fun places, though I'd rather be here than over there," Sophia said.
The spring 2022 program is set to begin on March 7. Anyone interested in registration or learning about volunteer opportunities can visit their website.