How Helping Others Changed My Life
In the fall of 2007, my dear friend Leila B. Armknecht called to tell me about an organization called Girls on the Run. I tried to keep up with her excitement as she bounced from topic to topic and talked about running and empowering young girls. She wanted to bring this nonprofit organization to Salt Lake City and she wanted my help in doing so.
I was baffled. My first thought was why on earth would I want to start a running program?! I didn’t run―in fact, I hated to run. I was more apt for walking, slogging (slow jogging), or sometimes even downright moping. But then she said something that has stuck with me all these years: “we can help girls find their voice.”
Her words were like a large, flashing, neon pink sign. I did everything in my power to put her crazy idea behind me. I was overwhelmed with life as it was and anything beyond raising my children was just not a priority for me. But I continued to hear her words over and over in my head: ”we can help girls find their voice.”
I believe it was meant to be my sign. Perhaps even my lifeline as I reflect back. Here I was, a 40-year-old woman struggling through a divorce, helping my ex-husband who was terminally ill, all while raising children on my own. Somewhere in the midst of all of it, I had lost my voice.
I was a confident child raised by supportive, loving parents that encouraged me to live life to the fullest. I was a college graduate who had an amazing job. Yet at some point, I fell victim to trying to be a perfect woman, a perfect wife, and a perfect mother. My own choices of conforming to cultural norms had smothered me.
The best thing about life crumbling is that when the dust settles you get to choose where to go next. I took a leap of faith and told Ms. Armknecht I would join her on her mission of bringing Girls on the Run to Utah. With a lot of coaxing, I finally agreed to take on the role of executive director. Here I am 11 years later and I am so grateful that Girls on the Run Utah has given me the opportunity to lead an organization that empowers thousands of girls, women, and men.
Becoming A Mentor
My first hands-on experience with Girls on the Run was coaching at Mountain View Elementary. At the end of the program, I signed up to be a running buddy for an eight-year-old girl named Violeta. My role as a running buddy was to help her finish the culminating 5k race. When the day of the event arrived I was excited to share this experience with her. As the air horn sounded, Violeta was off! Running as fast as she could.
I tried to keep up, being the novice runner that I was. I kept a steady pace with her and was in awe of her discipline, competency, and determination as she raced toward the finish. She came in first place, crossing the finish line with a bloody nose from the physical exertion. She was crying with overwhelming pride and fell into my arms. At that moment, I knew that Violeta had learned the power of her voice and that she could accomplish hard things. But the really humbling part of this experience was that it helped me, as an adult realize my own power―my power to step forward as a mentor and to help build the leadership skills of this young girl.
It’s been an incredible journey to see how the power of mentorship, teamwork, and physical exercise come together to change girls’ lives. Through teamwork, girls build commonalities that help build trust. Giving girls a safe space to explore themselves and their potential is critical to leadership development.
I remember a strong-willed girl named Samantha who had a larger than life personality. She was physically bigger than the other girls and she had learned to use her dominance by being intimidating. This was one of my first coaching experiences and I must admit that even I was a little frightened of her. The coaches helped Samantha learn that she possessed unique leadership qualities. Samantha learned that instead of using her voice to come across as a bully, she could speak her mind and alternatively become a great leader to her peers.
Young girls have a natural state of ease, confidence, love, and happiness but when they transition into adulthood our society can alter their perceptions of themselves. Social media and unintentional judgment of others can convince us to doubt our self-worth. We can get so caught up with cultural, superficial ideas that we forget who we truly are. We start living a life that is foreign to our natural state by trying to fit into the “girl” box. We forget about our authentic selves and our voices begin to dim. Giving girls self-confidence and leadership skills should absolutely remain at the forefront of priorities in our local community.
Now, more than ever, our girls need role models and mentors. Studies show that girls’ self-confidence begins to drop by age nine. Physical activity starts to decline and continues to decrease through adolescence. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, only 25 percent of our nation’s girls are getting the appropriate levels of physical activity, placing them at a disadvantage when it comes to their physical health and personal achievement.
In Utah, 20 percent of our youth are at an unhealthy weight. Anxiety and depression continue to rise among our youth and in a new report entitled “The Well-being Of Women In Utah In 2018,” Utah women had the fourth-highest suicide rates of any state. In addition, the recent statistics regarding gender equality in Utah are incredibly grim. The website Wallethub deemed Utah the worst state for women’s equality and according to a new index of sexist attitudes, Utah is the second-most sexist state in the nation. Even more staggering is that women show more sexism upon themselves than the men in our state. We see the consequences today when women’s leadership potential is massively untapped. This is an epic societal failure.
While these statistics are overwhelming, I am inspired by the hundreds of men and women in our community who step forward to devote their time to coaching the girls through our program. Through activities, we teach the importance of being vulnerable and sharing what makes each person unique. Not only are we teaching coaches how to mentor the girls, but we are also helping the coaches value their own unique qualities.
Mentorship is a two-way street and it’s exciting to see coaches, running buddies, and parents make lifelong emotional and physical changes. I have witnessed hundreds of adults make healthy shifts in their own lives due to the influence of Girls on the Run. I have seen a coach lose 130 pounds, a physically inactive vice principal complete two half marathons, a young teenager lead a team with confidence and self-assurance, and a family strengthened by working together to accomplish a goal. Girls on the Run has been a catalyst for making physical and emotional health fun.
In my daily work, I lead a small team of incredibly bright, steadfast women that truly rock. With only a small staff of four, we could easily work around the clock in an attempt to fulfill our mission. But it is my goal to practice what we preach and try to create a culture that supports the whole individual. Our employees are encouraged to take time for the gym, to volunteer at other organizations, and to leave when they need to be with their kids and families.
We would not be able to maintain such balance without the help of others. Our staff carries out initiatives set by the 18 members of our board of directors. These individuals are leaders in their own fields, who help us find generous organizations and activate the power of collaboration. When organizations come together, we can make serious, lasting impacts while sharing the workload. Some of our latest collaborations with CREW Utah and Illuminate help promote the importance of building future women to lead. I value the support they have given to the development of girls as they strive to make a permanent change in the landscape of women in the workforce.
Today, 11 years later, when I go out for a run and my feet hit the pavement, I am reminded of the power of running. There is a mind-heart-body connection that reminds me I am strong―not just physically strong but mentally strong, too. Running wipes away all of the layers of distraction and focuses my intentions. When I am running, I have no choice but to be true to myself. There is a deep, almost visceral connection between running and inner strength. Running sets the stage for self-confidence, goal setting, and ultimately limitless potential.