A message from Girls on the Run CEO, Elizabeth Kunz

At Girls on the Run, we find strength in connectedness and value the dignity and humanity of all people. We believe that Black lives matter and are grieving over the senseless murder of George Floyd last week – along with the lives of countless Black men and women that have been lost to racism over the decades.

Four hundred years of systemic racism in this country has led to feelings of hopelessness, anger, despair and fear. People are exhausted by our country’s ongoing failure to acknowledge and address centuries of deeply entrenched injustice. As a country, we can no longer stifle, deny or ignore the root cause of these painful emotions. Protest is a powerful way to stand up for ourselves and others to build a better world. Now, we must come together to create lasting change that ensures life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. I hope that we have finally reached a tipping point where true change can take place and healing can begin.

Knowledge is also power, and we must each work to be informed and create safe spaces for others to be educated. At Girls on the Run, we are finding hope in the lessons we teach our girls in things like:

  • not being a bystander but being a standbyer
  • putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to develop empathy for their experiences
  • valuing the worth of every member of the team
  • using our voices in ways that matter
  • making choices that create a better world.

We are living through a momentous time in history. What actions can you take now to be a part of the change we so desperately need in the world? How do you want to be remembered? Progress is not inevitable, and virtue is a choice. Now is the time to step up, come together and build a new nation of love, equity, justice and dignity for all.

Elizabeth Kunz
Chief Executive Officer
Girls on the Run International

Click below to read previous CEO messages in response to COVID-19.

Finding joy, optimism and gratitude in the story of our lives

I have always loved to read. A good author can adeptly immerse her readers through strong character development and the skillful revealing of an interesting plotline. My love of literature has led to my frequent use of the following statement when speaking to girls: “You are the author of your life.” Quite simply, these words convey the ultimate power we each have to choose how we experience the world around us. As the authors of our lives, we create or give meaning to the experiences that unfold day in and day out.

At Girls on the Run, we strive to create and find meaning that is joyful and to interpret our experiences with optimism. This comes alive in our core value of expressing joy, optimism and gratitude in our words, thoughts and actions. A subconscious bias towards the positive is often described as the Pollyanna principle, which comes from the novel “Pollyanna,” a classic of children’s literature written in 1913 by Eleanor Porter. Its success led to numerous sequels and the word “Pollyanna” being used to describe someone with an unfailingly optimistic outlook. So, while Pollyanna can be misinterpreted as excessively cheerful, it ultimately derives from Pollyanna and her father playing “the glad game” as a method of coping with the real difficulties and sorrows of life.

Finding joy, optimism and gratitude in the story of our lives does not mean ignoring reality or putting our heads in the sand. We must see all possibilities in order to be prepared. Therefore, we have a responsibility to envision the worst possible outcome to any situation. But that worst case view must always be balanced by vital optimism to ensure that it does not lead to the four Ds – doubt, detriment, depression or defeat.

Our lives have many chapters, and we all have the power to interpret the situations in which we find ourselves. Some of these situations are created by choices we intentionally make (taking a new job, getting married or divorced) but others are less in our control (severe weather incidents, or a threat to our health such as cancer diagnosis or what we are now experiencing with COVID-19). How we manage our inner voice – whether we are in control of the experience or not – defines how we feel.

Good books include chapters filled with fear, tension, unknown and volatility, as these experiences lead to powerful and cathartic outcomes. As the authors of our lives, each of us has the power to determine the meaning of this COVID-19 chapter we are currently experiencing. What is its ultimate purpose and where will it lead us? What is this experience helping us learn that we did not know before? Resilience? Community spirit? Gratitude? Responsibility? How is this chapter guiding us to the next chapter in our lives?

While we are all currently experiencing uncertainty and pain, as the authors of our lives, we each can choose to find ways to be creative, find gratitude in this moment and spread love. We can discover something new about ourselves, continue learning and remain optimistically curious about what the next chapter will bring. During this unsettling time, remember that what we are going through is a chapter in the book of our lives – not the whole story. I am looking forward to turning the page.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

The expression “every cloud has a silver lining” dates to the 1600s and conveys that even the worst situations have some positive aspect. I have found myself using this proverbial saying frequently over the last three weeks as I seek to find and acknowledge positive aspects of this pandemic.

However, seeking these silver linings does not mean minimizing or ignoring the devastating impact of the metaphorical cloud our world is facing. As I write, more than 9,000 people have died in the United States – and even with social distancing, this number could grow into the hundreds of thousands. The economic toll that social distancing is taking is grim, with almost 10 million people filing for unemployment in the last two weeks of March. Lastly, isolation can magnify existing problems, leading to grave long-term effects on our physical and emotional well-being.

So, yes, we must courageously face this pandemic while also striving to remain optimistic and grateful. This is a mental balancing act that is not easy to do. Here are some silver linings I have found – first more broadly and then more specifically to Girls on the Run.

Many families are spending more time together. While adults with essential jobs may be working longer hours than ever before, many parents are now at home with their children. Time is life, and this is perhaps the greatest silver lining of all.

And time – life – has slowed down. We are a nation that equates busyness with effectiveness, and we are being forced to rest and take a breath. We have been given an opportunity to question things we took for granted or accepted as given and reflect on how these prior thoughts may have led us to complacency. Progress occurs in the quiet, and this pause will allow us to move forward with a heightened sense of reality and purpose.

While unemployment is at its highest levels since the Great Depression in the 1930s, we are a far richer country now with the government in a much better position to address the financial impacts. Experts believe the financial markets can recover in the next year versus the 10 years it took following the Great Depression.

The planet is benefiting from drops in both noise and air pollution. Satellites that detect emissions in the atmosphere show huge declines in pollution over major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

Gardens are in. The arrival of spring combined with people staying at home has led to an abundance of new vegetable, fruit and herb gardens being planted. Much like victory gardens during World War II, gardening is a way for each of us to contribute to our own sustenance and helps support our feelings of safety and security.

Pet fostering is significantly increasing. Shelters have placed a record number of dogs and cats with people who now find themselves at home all day. If past trends are any indication, many of these people will permanently adopt their animals.

At Girls on the Run, until school closures halted our spring season, we were on track to provide our transformational programming to more girls than ever before. We did not let school closures keep us from serving these girls and immediately created GOTR at Home activities for girls to do alone or with their families. The response to GOTR at Home has been tremendous, and we’ll be releasing two new activities each week.

Girls on the Run attracts dedicated volunteer coaches, and many are eager to stay in touch with their teams during this time. As such, we developed GOTR Connect – a weekly group video session for coaches and girls to discuss the GOTR at Home activities in a safe online space. While we cannot wait to get back to our core programming when school resumes, we are thrilled to be able to provide both GOTR at Home and GOTR Connect in the interim.

Sadly, when schools started to close, some of our teams in cold-weather states had not even started their seasons yet. We are so grateful for the families who have converted their registration fees into a donation instead of requesting a refund. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on charitable giving as well as program fees and are incredibly thankful for this generosity during such a challenging time.

With this support, we are confident we will survive this disruption and continue to bring our mission to life across the country. Sadly, research shows that isolation can lead to long-term mental health effects. As the leading national expert in physical activity-based positive youth development, we understand the importance of physical and mental wellness, particularly in shaping how we come out of the other side of this experience. Thanks to the support of people like you, Girls on the Run will remain a vital and positive force for our girls, our families and our communities.

Healthy Actions in the Face of Fear

Many people think of Girls on the Run as an organization that promotes physical activity, and we certainly do – it’s even in our name! But equally important is our commitment to strengthening the emotional health of the girls we serve. As a physical activity-based positive youth development program, we use running to teach girls critical life skills.

A key learning objective is to help girls better identify, understand and manage their emotions and to recognize that our emotions are not “right” or “wrong” — they are simply part of being human. One way we teach girls to clarify their emotions is through the following statement: “I feel ________, when you _________, because ___________, I would like for you to __________.” In action: “I feel scared when you keep going out to see your friends because people can spread this virus without showing symptoms; I would like for you to stay at home so we can stop this virus as soon as possible.”

Fear is a powerful and primitive emotion that we are all feeling right now. And it is an entirely appropriate response, because its purpose is to protect us from perceived dangers or threats. Fear can be both emotional and physiological — rapid heart rate, dry mouth and profuse sweating are common physical effects — while our emotional response is highly individual. Whether emotional or physiological, our fear response increases when we find ourselves in situations that are unpredictable, uncontrollable or chronic.

So, here we find ourselves in a situation that meets all three of these qualifiers. Our fear can lead us to take healthy actions, and we must ensure we are appropriately responding. Another Girls on the Run lesson teaches girls to stop, breathe and think before responding to challenging situations. Not slowing down to understand our anxiety can lead to overreactions (such as hoarding toilet paper) which is understandable because fear is also contagious.

What are some healthy actions that our fear can drive right now?

Stay home as much as possible. Social distancing is the most important response we can take right now to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We each must take this seriously, as it is one thing we can control. When you must leave for work or essentials, keep your physical distance from those you encounter.

Do good. Care for others — financially, emotionally, supportively — however you can. If you have the means, help those whose financial livelihood has been devastated by shutdowns. Offer to run errands or go to the grocery store for people who are quarantined or most at risk. Support locally owned restaurants that are offering takeout service to help them stay afloat.

Respond with gratitude. If you find yourself spiraling into anxiety or fear, take a cue from our curriculum — stop, breathe, think about the specific thing that is causing your reaction and respond to it with gratitude. We have very real things to be afraid of — unemployment, illness, death — but the weight of any challenge, big or small, can be lessened with gratitude. Most importantly, think about all the dedicated individuals who are working around the clock to care for the sick, help prevent the spread, and research potential treatments or a vaccine.

Stay informed. This comes with a caveat: while it is important to understand the facts, be selective in what and how much you read and watch. It is easy to become obsessed and overwhelmed with the news, and this can negatively impact your physical and emotional health. Get key updates and then go outside, if possible, to move in the fresh air.

Find your joy. Many of us have seen the balcony sing-alongs that have become a daily tradition in Italy as people shelter at home. What joyful moments can you create, and better yet, share with others?

Our emotions are what make us human. They should not be shut out or inflated; rather, they should guide us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, our surroundings, our place and our purpose in the world.

Finding Strength in Connectedness

Finding strength in our connectedness is a core value of Girls on the Run, and it comes alive in many ways. We see it with our teams of girls as they sit in a small circle to learn critical life skills at practice and high-five and hug one another after completing the 5K. We see it embodied in our coach training sessions when our volunteers gather to learn and practice critical skills they will need to facilitate the curriculum. And we see it across the country through our staff and board leadership who collaborate closely to set our strategy and guide our movement forward.

And so, the concept of social distancing – staying at home, maintaining at least six feet of distance from others and avoiding group settings – feels at complete odds with who we are at our core.

However, another organizational core value is being intentional in our decision making, and we understand why avoiding direct contact is vitally important. By slowing the spread of COVID-19, we can save countless lives by reducing stress on our hospitals. We each have a personal responsibility to view social distancing as an earnest act of unity – collaboration through separation is how we can slow the spread of the virus.

Nurturing our physical, emotional and spiritual health is also a core value of Girls on the Run, and we teach girls fundamental skills like resilience, confidence, empathy and self-awareness through activities that include running. These are skills we all need to navigate this crisis, as the vastness and unknown nature of the situation is disorienting and can easily lead us to be fearful and anxious. While we are nurturing our physical health through social distancing, we must also do everything we can to find our center and stay mentally healthy. One way to do this is to reframe our thinking – instead of focusing on what we can’t do, ask ourselves what can we do? Here are five tips that align with our program:

  • Prioritize your physical and mental well-being by finding ways to stay active while protecting yourself and others. Exercise helps us cope with anxiety, so go outside for a run or walk if you can while keeping a safe distance from others.
  • A valuable part of our curriculum is teaching girls the important role we each play in strengthening our communities. Make time to check on your friends and neighbors, particularly those who may be significantly impacted by school closures, who live alone or who are experiencing financial hardship. We are all in this together and must find ways to support one another.
  • We are washing our hands, but let’s keep them active as well! Cooking, doing puzzles, writing letters, playing board games, gardening, drawing, crocheting, woodworking – do the things that you enjoy the most.
  • While we are physically self-isolating, it does not mean we have to mentally isolate from one another. Stay in touch with your friends and family, being intentional in understanding how this situation is personally affecting their lives. Regularly call them or take advantage of the numerous ways we now have to digitally connect.
  • Contemplate all you have to be grateful for in a gratitude journal or through self-reflection. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed right now, so focusing on gratitude will help ease your mind. When you think about the virus specifically, feel gratitude for all the people who are working so hard to mitigate it – our healthcare providers and medical professionals, our first responders, our city and county officials, our state and federal agencies. Even better, is there a way you can express this gratitude?

On behalf of the entire Girls on the Run team, please know that we will continue to do everything we can to provide the resources and support you need to navigate this crisis. We are always stronger when we come together, and we will not allow this virus to fray our connectedness with one another. Instead, may it become the prompt that allows us to become closer than ever before in ways we never have before.