GOTR Volunteers: Meet The Coach Who’s Led 20 Seasons

From the moment Jennifer Ford picked up the Girls on the Run curriculum in 2005, she began making indelible impressions on the lives of countless young girls in four different states. Now, after twenty seasons, she has not only taught participants how to find their happy pace but also how to navigate the complexities of life with confidence and grace. Her commitment goes beyond the finish line; she has nurtured supportive teams where every girl knows her worth, believes in her potential, and understands the importance of working together and mutual respect. Her legacy is evident not just in the impressive number of years of her involvement, but in the empowered girls who have grown under her guidance, ready to face the world head-on. In celebration of National Volunteer Month, we connected with Coach Jennifer for a fun interview about what brought her to Girls on the Run, what keeps her inspired as a coach, and why others should get involved next season.

How did you learn about Girls on the Run?

I learned about Girls on the Run back in 2005 when I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina. At that time, I was employed at the YWCA where I worked in their after-school program. One day at work, a representative from Girls on the Run stopped by to speak about the program to our staff. Within seconds of hearing about the program and its impact, I was all in. 

When did you get started at Girls on the Run?

Immediately after, I registered my after-school group for the upcoming season. As someone who has always been physically fit, enjoyed running and the outdoors, and had an outgoing personality, I knew this was going to be a great fit for both me and the girls.  

What was your first season like?

My first season coaching was a combination of hectic and exciting. But because of how enthusiastic I was about the program, I took a lot of notes and reviewed the lessons in advance. Completing these steps helped ease my overwhelm, and soon enough, I got into a steady, organized groove. I had curriculum pages marked with sticky notes and little cheat sheets to help keep me on track! The kids enjoyed the new movement-based activities and the lap counters were a BIG hit. Because of the great question prompts in the lessons, I was able to get to know the girls in different ways than usual. Something that will always stand out to me was that first 5K Celebration. That day really blew all of our minds! None of us had participated in anything like that before. Coming together in the 5K neighborhood and seeing all the shirts really reiterated what a big deal this was. I’ll always remember the looks of awe on my team members’ faces.  

How has your experience changed over the seasons?

I have been blessed to coach in four different states. The environments of each location (North Carolina, South Carolina, California, and now, Alabama), are so different and in some ways similar, but have all been good experiences. These changes have allowed me to challenge myself and learn more and more each season about working with kids. In some instances, I feel coaching has taught me more about children than teaching! Jennifer currently is employed as a long-term substitute teacher and librarian at Edgewood Elementary. Leading as a coach helped me learn how to better support students reel in certain behaviors and emotions. I love Girls on the Run because I see the benefits right before my eyes. I see the girls who didn’t want to do it, or whose parents may have signed them up, end up enjoying it the most, and those are always awesome transformations to witness. Hearing positive parent responses about the topics we discuss is also always great. 

 Another key aspect of the program that I hold near to my heart is its inclusive community; watching kids interact with children from different cultures. I enjoy talking about respecting one another’s differences and celebrating what makes us unique. This inclusive space helped my teams navigate some big, important conversations. I witnessed this come to life powerfully when I was a coach in California, where my team included many participants from the eastern Indian population. Throughout practices, my team came together to learn more about that culture. It is always wonderful to witness participants connect with people they don’t normally interact with during the school day and watch those wonderful new relationships blossom.   

Is there a particular season, memory, or experience that stands out?

When I first moved to Alabama, I made it my mission to bring Girls on the Run to the school I worked at. At that time, this was the only GOTR in the community, so people were not familiar with the concept. I worked hard to get people excited and enrolled. One day during lunch, I noticed a young girl (let’s call her June) sitting alone, away from her class. I knew that June needed GOTR. So, I walked up to her and introduced her to the wonderful world of Girls on the Run. I said, “You’re the perfect girl for Girls on the Run.” I explained to her that GOTR is for girls of all backgrounds, all sizes, and all abilities. And when I noticed June appeared nervous about the ‘running’ portion, I told her, “You don’t even have to run, you just have to move and make it from Point A to Point B – whatever is best for you!” June – still a little apprehensive – told me she would think about it. Not long after this conversation, I learned that she was experiencing bullying from her classmates, so when I read June’s name on my registration list, I couldn’t be happier.  As the season went on, June began showing up in my classroom to visit with me before the first period. I saw Girls on the Run give her the confidence to stop by, even when other students she did not know began filing into the room. Over time, the bullying lessened as I shared the GOTR values with ALL of the students and explained how hard this GOTR girl was working. And soon enough, during June’s morning visits, my class began greeting June with kindness and respect. I’ll always remember the time one of the students even welcomed her with a hug! Girls on the Run has provided a great experience for the entire school. Throughout my tenure, kids from different classes have made and hung signs to encourage girls throughout the season and pump them up for the 5K event. A few kids even once wrote a song and poem and performed it at the endofseason celebration. And as for June, she continues to visit me, even now, two years later, and is looking forward to coaching someday! 

What is your favorite lesson?

The Star Power lesson is one of my favorites. Every season, I always love to see how the participants celebrate that concept, plus I love seeing them rise up and do the Star Jump. I love seeing their smiles. The lesson about making friends is also a favorite of mine. In this lesson, you, the coach, have a chance to get to know girls’ interests and a little bit more about who they are as people. Additionally, you get to watch girls form new bonds and establish new relationships. 

Why should other people coach or volunteer at GOTR?

If you have a passion for empowering girls and can recall what it was like to be a child who sometimes felt like you didn’t fit in or feel confident in certain areas (even as an adult), you should get involved. The program’s lessons help everyone process these parts of life and understand that you (or your child, friend’s child, family member, etc.) are not alone. Coaching allows you to press pause on your worries and be in the moment with the girls. And if you weren’t having a great day before practice, you will often find yourself leaving practice lighter and saying, “Oh, I needed THAT today!” Even as someone who has coached this long, I still appreciate that the lessons help me reflect on certain things I may need for myself that I haven’t thought about in some time. And as a parent, coaching helps you learn how to navigate discussions with your kids and other kids. And above all else, you can feel good playing a positive role in someone’s day, or even life. A bonus is that it keeps you fit and moving! 

What’s one word or phrase you’d use to summarize the experience of being a GOTR coach?

I can’t choose just one word, so I’ll go with these two – rewarding and fulfilling.