That first meeting. You may feel a little nervous; you aren’t sure what to expect. But you have the feeling it is the start of something new, exciting, even life-changing.

This was the energy at the first session of the Westerville Community Center Girls on the Run group.

The national program gets girls in the third through eighth grade active while developing their character and confidence. They are taught life skills through interactive lessons and running games over a 10-week period ending with a 5k running celebration. Last Tuesday night, seven girls in the third through fifth grade and three coaches at the Westerville site kicked off the season and began to learn about one another through a few ice-breakers.

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For some of the girls, it is their first time participating in Girls on the Run. Fourth grader Janie Bowers (A.K.A. Joyful Janie, her new encouraging nickname at Girls on the Run) was inspired to sign up because of her mom, a marathon runner. She has cheered for her mom on the sidelines, but they have never done a race together.

“I really like to run and we have wanted to run a 5K together for a long time so we decided this would be the one,” said Janie.

Janie isn’t the only one new to Girls on the Run. The coaches are all first-time volunteers. Head Coach, Valentine Cabell, is excited to lead the group and see how everyone will grow along the way including herself.

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Valentine is still pretty new to running.  Growing up, she struggled with her weight and thought she couldn’t run, but that all changed last December when she signed up for a half marathon on a whim. In just five short months, she trained and completed her first race ever in May 2014.

“I learned if you push yourself, you can do anything you want. I want the girls to feel how empowering it is to set a goal and achieve it,” she said.

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Many of the activities will focus on teaching the girls how to positively approach situations in their daily lives. Franklin County Girls on the Run Council Director, Jessica Sparks said one of the exercises they do early on is a visualization activity where the girls sit with their eyes closed and picture how negative talk affects them and then how positive words influence them.

“How you think about yourself affects how you think about and treat others. We want the girls to understand every action that involves someone else can be positive or negative. Children can have a powerful impact in small ways from simply saying thank you to the lunch lady who hands them a tray to abstaining from gossip when it is around them,” said Jessica.

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The running portion of the meetings gives the girls another healthy outlet to work through life’s challenges. Coach Valentine has experienced the social, physical and emotional benefits of running.

“I look at things in a different light, and don’t get as angry. I now have this positive way to deal with stress. If I have had a bad day, I go for a run and it helps change my attitude,” said Valentine.

And many others around Franklin County are enjoying working out with Girls on the Run. In 2010, the organization had just 60 participants per season and now more than 700 girls are involved this fall.

These hundreds of participants will come together for the 5K run on Saturday, November 15 downtown at the Columbus Commons. The run is open to the public and rather than being a competition, it is a celebration.

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Fifth grader Rori Draminski is in her fourth season with Girls on the Run; and her favorite part of the program is the 5K. “I am so happy during the run. It is really fun meeting new people, being cheered on and crossing the finish line,” said Rori.

Until 5K time, the girls at the Westerville Community Center will continue to get together twice a week.

“It is really neat to see how the girls and coaches bond after the ten weeks. Those relationships become such an important part of the program,” said Girls on the Run Director Jessica.

We’ll follow up with Girls on the Run later this season to see how the group has transformed from its first meeting. For more information on the program or volunteering, visit girlsontherunfranklincounty.org.