The girls chatted, giggled and cheered as they ran lap after lap around the track.
They only stopped to wipe the sweat from their faces and to take a few gulps of water from the bottles etched with their names. But, they didn't pause for long. They wanted to get back on the track. They had laps to run. Cheers to make up. Friends to support.
After school on Wednesdays and Thursdays, about 20 girls head to the outdoor track at Apollo Beach Elementary. They are members of Girls on the Run, a program that is much more than the words in its name. Yes, it wants girls to run. But, just as big in this program is teaching girls the importance of a high self-esteem and how to fill their growing bodies with healthy food.
"This organization helps girls realize their potential," said Jessica Muroff, director of marketing and communications of Frameworks in Tampa, which operates Girls on the Run. "It teaches them to love who they are and to understand we are all unique."
Society bombards today's girls with many messages about how they should look or act. It's unfair, Muroff said. Girls on the Run counters those messages by telling girls they are all special.
It seems to be working at Apollo Beach Elementary. The girls can't wait to learn the day's positive message, munch on a healthy snack and then hit the track for some exercise.
"It gives me energy," said Kali Curtis, 9, a fourth-grader. "It keeps me positive about myself and others. They teach us a lot of good life lessons. It's fun to be out here."
Girls on the Run is designed for third- through eighth-graders. There are 12 teams at 11 school sites in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. About 180 girls are involved in the program in the three counties and they are led by 28 volunteer coaches.
Girls don't race each other or a clock. Instead, the opponent is inside each girl. Set out to run two laps or 10 laps. Reach your goal.
"It's really all about their individual goals," Muroff said. "It's for you. It's very personal."
Stacie Seal, a fourth-grade teacher at Apollo Beach Elementary, pushed for the program at the school. She had been a Girls on the Run coach at a school in North Carolina, where she taught. Molly Barker founded Girls on the Run in Charlotte, N.C. in 1996.
Seal, who enjoys playing sports but isn't the biggest fan of running, recruited Natalie Cosby, a special education teacher at Apollo Beach Elementary and running fanatic, to help her coach Girls on the Run. They have been coaching together for two years.
Unfortunately, Seal said, she has heard students say "I'm not smart enough" and "I don't look good." The girls seem sad. She is crushed when she hears them talk that way and tries to encourage them. Seal said she is so happy to help with Girls on the Run at the school.
"This is such a positive program for the girls," Seal said. "They are all learning they have a wonderful uniqueness."
Trista Krone, program manager for Girls on the Run, is thankful for the volunteer coaches. They help because they want to.
"They give so much of themselves to these girls," she said. "They are the program. Without them, there is no program."
Jessica Pillsbury and three friends resemble a pack. They run together and take water breaks together. They sing songs and make up cheers as they run around the track. A favorite is: "Girls on the Run. Girls on the Run is so much fun!"
Pillsbury, 9, a fourth-grader, loves the running club. She feels stronger. She feels better.
"It gets all the negativity out of me and makes me happy," she said. "It's really fun for me."
Can other girls run with them? Or is this running pack open only to these four girls? With a serious look on her face, Pillsbury said this group is not exclusive.
"You never want to leave anyone out," she said.
After running, the girls and coaches finish with stretching and silly songs. Everyone is laughing and sweating. They are exhausted.
Cosby loves everything about Girls on the Run. It encourages fitness. It advocates self-esteem and it promotes healthy foods. And, it is working with these girls, she said.
"They all get better," Cosby said. "It's amazing to watch."
Carly Farnell, 10, likes the running club because she has a lot of energy. The fifth-grader can move. She has a necklace outfitted with 28 colorful plastic feet, each one representing six laps or 3.1 miles, which amounts to a 5-kilometer run. She has more at home.
"It's fun to go out there," Farnell said.
Muroff said the program is helping girls and she knows that firsthand. She was a running buddy for a 10-year-old girl and listened in awe as the youngster raved about how much she liked Girls on the Run.
Muroff said their conversation took a serious slant at times. At other moments, she and the preteen could not stop laughing. She said the girl had inspired her.
"I think it's the best run I ever had," Muroff said.
Karen Menotti agrees the program has a positive impact on the girls. Her daughter, Ashleigh, 9, a fourth-grader at Apollo Beach Elementary, is a cheerleader and a member of the running group. Both activities give her daughter plenty of exercise, but Girls on the Run is doing something else — giving her daughter a good dose of self-esteem.
"I think she's more confident," Menotti said.
Monica Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.