Jillian Casey, 9, tried to sum up her thoughts about Girls on the Run as she jogged around the field at Freedom Elementary during a recent practice.
"It's like Girl Scouts mixed with a track team or something," the third-grader said, satisfied with her assessment."I think it's really good."
"It helped me get first place in the 800 meter at school," said Kara Stach, 10, as she ran by. "It's making us a better person, too."
This is the first time students at Freedom Elementary have participated in the national program, joining 11 other elementary and two middle schools in the county.
Since 2012, Carroll County has been a part of the Central-Maryland branch that started in Howard County in 2010, according to Lisa Martin, founder and community outreach and marketing director for Girls on the Run of Central Maryland.
"We started with four schools and 42 girls," Martin said. "We now have a total of 60 schools and about 1,100 girls."
The 10-week program requires teams of girls in third through fifth grade or sixth through eighth grade to meet twice a week in preparation to run a 5K at the end of the program.
Each session involves a warm-up routine and laps around a track. But the program also offers lessons that focus on a variety of issues, including building a young girl's self-esteem; how to make good decisions; how girls should express their emotions appropriately and how girls can set goals and meet them.
"I do a lot of work with women struggling with weight and self-esteem in their 40s, 50s and 60s," said Martin, a professional trainer. "I thought, 'Why not start with them younger?' I saw the curriculum (for Girls on the Run) and it drew me to the program. I saw the value in it.
"The biggest thing for me is, it is more than a running program," Martin said. "It is not just a competition."
Each team — a maximum of 15 girls — also does a community service project.
"It is a very diverse little group," said Noel MacGrath, a volunteer coach along with two staff members at Freedom. "We have very, very shy ones, athletic ones, not very athletic ones, the outspoken ones
At Freedom, the 13 team members learned how to express their feelings through activities that included passing a ball with only one's elbows, playing a game similar to leap frog and running. Laughter accompanied all the events and the girls each shared thoughts throughout.
"The girls do open up," said Kayla Koster, Sandymount Elementary's Girls on the Run coach."We try to work through any type of problems they have."
Sandymount was one of the first schools in the county to start a team for Girls on the Run back in 2010. The school has had two teams of girls preparing for the 5K event for the last two spring seasons.
"It is a phenomenal program," Koster said. "The more schools that get involved the better. We have a lot of fun."
This spring season has been challenging for all the teams with practices in both rain and snow.
"It has been very tricky. We had to be creative," Koster said. "The school and the custodial staff have been very supportive. We've been inside and running the halls. We figured 10 laps inside equals one mile."
"We've come out in the rain and once in the snow," MacGrath recalled. "We tried to incorporate the snow into our chant."
The weather may have prepared everyone for the 5K event on May 31 at 8 a.m. at 6940 Columbia Gateway Drive in Columbia, which will be held rain or shine.
"One year, it was freezing cold. Another, a torrential downpour." Martin said. "If conditions are dangerous, we would not have it."
And while the race is not about winning, the pride on every girl's face when she crossed the finish line is amazing, all agreed.
"When we do the event, the girls all wear T-shirts and we have face painting, hair dyeing and hair bows," Koster said. "It is always an exciting day. We're very much looking forward to it."
"Everybody is there for those girls," Martin said. "To see their expressions when they cross the finish line is priceless. A lot of people out there accomplish something they never thought they could."
The following Carroll County elementary schools have a Girls on the Run program:
Carrolltowne; Ebb Valley; Elmer A. Wolfe; Freedom; Linton Springs; Mechanicsville; Mount Airy; Piney Ridge; Sandymount; Taneytown and Winfield.
Sykesville Middle and West Middle also have Girls on the Run programs.