Girls on the Run works to be inclusive, accommodate all involved
Twelve-year-old Olivia Tiedemann and 11-year-old Andi Zaslow are just like any other fifth-graders at Sandymount Elementary School.
The pair both belong to the school's Girls on the Run team. On a Tuesday in April, the girls do partner activities together — one of which requires them to lock arms and sit back-to-back while trying to stand up, all while not letting go of each other.
In-between activities, Olivia looks up to Karen Belcher, who helps to translate directions for her using sign language. Olivia, who is deaf, has been on the team for two years now. And while Belcher works to move around and be there to translate, she also tries to let Olivia have her independence.
Perhaps what has helped most with allowing her the freedom to socialize like any other child is Andi.
Andi, in becoming friends with Olivia, took it upon herself to learn to sign, so the two could communicate.
Belcher works with Olivia on a daily basis, in school but also in programs like Girls on the Run, which is focused more on friendships and having fun as opposed to academics, which somewhat changes how she helps. Belcher said the program is something Olivia looks forward to every spring.
"This is a good opportunity for her to socialize," Belcher said, adding that Andi learning sign language has helped Olivia, because Belcher doesn't have to stay right by Olivia's side throughout each practice.
Olivia, who said she likes to run and hang out with friends, said having friends learn to sign has helped her to communicate. Andi, who is in her third year in the program, said she thought sign language was cool, and just started to ask questions and look up answers.
"I recently started going to Miss Belcher's sign language class," she added. "I thought that it was really unique."
Girls on the Run has been a place where Andi said she gets to hang out with friends and learn about being a young woman. The program is "awesome," she said.
"I like to learn about how to be … a better person," she added.
Girls on the Run is a "girl empowerment program," and teams usually have anywhere from eight to 20 girls on them, Jess Duvall, executive director of Girls on the Run of Central Maryland, said. Usually the teams meet at a school, although this year three teams are meeting at local gyms — one at the YMCA in Westminster and two at Merritt Athletic Club in Eldersburg, she said.
This year, there are 17 teams in Carroll County, with nearly 300 girls in grades three through eight participating, she said.
Over 10 weeks, volunteer coaches will deliver a national curriculum to the girls involved, Duvall said. They learn life lessons, like how to set personal goals, how to manage stress and how to recognize their strengths. The whole time, she added, the girls are training for a 5K.
"The running and the life skills are kind of woven together," Duvall said.
Girls on the Run international recently put out a statement and guidelines for an inclusionary initiative, something Carroll has been working to implement, she said. The initiative comes with changes and adaptations coaches can implement into the curriculum to make sure that girls with mild to moderate disabilities — both cognitive and physical — can participate.
Duvall said in Central Maryland's Girls on the Run chapter — which includes Howard and Carroll counties — they've been serving girls with disabilities from the beginning, but the initiative from the international organization "is sort of giving us some better tools."
During the Tuesday afternoon practice, the Sandymount team, which is made up of 37 girls, paired the day's running with a lesson on emotions. The group talked about how there are no bad emotions, rather, there are just comfortable and uncomfortable emotions.
As they finished running, the girls grouped together, chanting the name of a teammate who was the last to make it to the end and cheering when she got there.
Melissa Caltrider, who works in the support room at Sandymount and is one of the coaches for the Girls on the Run team there, said in addition to having someone on the team who is deaf, they also have a girl who has autism.
Programs like this are great for all of the girls, but especially for those who may be struggling with a disability, she said. For the student with autism, Girls on the Run has helped her learn to understand and work on her emotions, she said.
But the program is good for more than just girls who may have a disability. Caltrider said the program has helped to empower all girls and boost their confidence.