Jahkya Hayes still had a lap left to run. She had done her stretches and warmed up right along with the other girls, but they had already finished the 5K just as she was approaching her last lap around Keane Elementary School.
“I’m not going to finish,” the 11-year-old thought.
And then, in what felt like an instant, the nine other girls on the team rallied around Jahkya, and vowed to run the last lap with their friend.
“We didn’t want to leave nobody behind,” recalled 11-year-old Lindia Sistrunk of the practice 5K last week. “That’s like our motto: ‘Leave no girl behind.’ So we all joined hands, not just the girls but the volunteers, too, and we ran right through the finish line together.”
As Jahkya ran through the finish line, her eyes filled with tears. She ran straight into the arms of her waiting mother, who, along with a handful of other parents, had come out in the middle of a Thursday afternoon to cheer on their girls.
“They were happy tears, because that was my first time actually achieving something that I set a goal to do,” said Jahkya. “Before, I really didn’t think I could really do this. I didn’t think I could do it. I had to stop a lot and drink lots of water. But then after one stop, I just kept going.”
The girls, all fourth- and fifth-graders at Keane Elementary, are members of the Capital Region’s first-ever Girls on the Run team. Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 in North Carolina with a mission to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident. Since then, the organization has used an experience-based curriculum that integrates running to improve the body image, eating attitudes, self esteem and sense of identity for hundreds of thousands of girls across 47 states and Canada.
The Capital Region team began meeting in February, with lessons, running games and workouts every Monday and Thursday after school let out. The season concludes Sunday with the 34th annual Mother’s Day Women’s Run/Walk bRUNch in Central Park. The practice 5K last week was preparation for this culminating event, which every Girls on the Run team across the country completes.
The goal is to eventually host their own 5K, said LuAnn McCormick, an Albany researcher who got the idea to form a local team while recovering from abdominal surgery last year.
“I was just laying on the couch surfing the net when one link led me to another and I ended up on the Girls on the Run Web page,” she said. “A light bulb went off. I was instantly drawn to it. It was about empowering girls and healthy living and those two things have been important to me in recent years and it just made perfect sense to me.”
McCormick was shocked to find that there was no local team already. Girls on the Run headquarters sent her a list of all the people who had expressed an interest in forming a Capital Region team over the years. One of those people, Ameera Crellin, wanted desperately to bring a team to Keane, where she works as a social worker. She ended up reaching out to girls in the school and asking them if they wanted to join. Both McCormick and Crellin were impressed that the organization used an evidence-based curriculum, with running as a vehicle for lessons in self confidence, character development and teamwork.
Jahkya was proof-positive that healthy, confident girls can. They can run, dream, lead, change the world.
Like Trinity Becker, who can now breathe easily while she runs and suspects she can even beat her brother at races these days.
Or Mykaela Abernathy, who can now look her bullies in the eye and feel proud. The fifth-grader said she was bullied “for being fat.” It’s hard to believe looking at her. She’s 11 years old and petite. Then again, girls the world over learn at a young age that their bodies are to be scrutinized.
“I’ve lost 10 pounds,” said Abernathy. “But I also feel proud of myself because I’m like, ‘Wow, I can actually run a 5K.’ I thought I couldn’t finish one until I finished one.”
Lindia Sistrunk can now be herself again. The 11-year-old first joined Girls on the Run to regroup after a tough year. Her parents moved last summer, and she had to leave her friends at Pleasant Valley behind to go to a new school with new people and new teachers.
“I was around the wrong people and I wanted to go back to my old school because I missed all my friends and everything, but my attitude changed since I’ve been in Girls on the Run,” she said. “My personality came back.”
Now, Sistrunk is surrounded by people who are “kind and nice” and genuinely enjoy running. It’s rubbed off. She loves to run now, too, she said.
“When we did the 5K, it didn’t matter that I was in first place,” she said. “What I thought really matters is that I finally achieved something that I wanted. I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but then I did it anyways.”