They've taught girls to feel confident, how to make healthy food choices and how to train for a 5K run.

Dozens of active-duty Air Force women have volunteered their time since September through the Pershing Hill Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association to mentor girls in grades three through five on wellness issues. The new program is called "Girls Rock."

Last Wednesday afternoon, they were honored for their efforts with a $1,000 grant from National PTA Chief Executive Officer Byron V. Garrett. Pershing Hill, at Fort Meade, was one of 45 schools nationwide honored as part of the national PTA's "Healthy Lifestyles" initiative. Three other schools in Maryland were also honored for their programs - Arundel Middle in Odenton, Burleigh Manor in Ellicott City and Judith A. Resnik Elementary in Gaithersburg.

National PTA has celebrated "Healthy Lifestyles" month for the past five years, and awarded grants for three years. The organization was able to double the number of grants awarded from 22 last year to 45 this year.

"When young girls and young boys see their role models being active, they end up picking up the mantle, knowing they can do that, too," said Garrett.

Joanna Bradshaw, president of Pershing Hill's PTA, dreamed up the program. According to Amanda Hatt, the Pershing Hill PTA's program chairwoman, Bradshaw read about girls having eating disorders as early as the third grade, and wanted to offer a program to help young girls develop strong self-esteem.

"When I first started this, I wanted it to be big, but never could I have imagined this," said Bradshaw in a video aired during the presentation. (Bradshaw, vacationing with her family out-of-state, was unable to attend the presentation.)

Bradshaw went to the 707th Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaisance Group at Fort Meade and was overwhelmed by volunteers. Beginning in September, every Wednesday after school, the 36 servicewomen have worked with participating girls on character development and physical training. Much of the girls' training was in anticipation of their participation in the base's annual Jingle Bell 5K.

The servicewomen "run with them; they do the lessons," said Hatt, whose daughter participates. "They have really loved it. For girls, the big self-esteem boost is setting a goal and meeting it. That really lights them up."

Students from all the elementary schools on base - Meade Heights, Manor View, Ridgeway, West Meade, Pershing Hill and some home-schoolers - are participating.

Staff Sgt. Cathy Williams and Staff Sgt. Heather White have coordinated the volunteers, who Williams said are "not parents of girls."

"Military women volunteer a lot of their time in general," Williams said. "When we put it out there, they jumped at it. What could be a better way to work with girls?"

Riley Arant, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said the lessons have been fun and the servicewomen have encouraged them to work hard.

"They've been very encouraging," Riley said. "Whenever we're running, they always say, 'Good job.' "

Denise Plowman, whose two daughters, Christina and Sarah Plowman, are in the program and have both run in excess of 26 miles each, said, "The program was great because it worked with them from the beginning to build up their stamina."

"I've learned to run so I can be healthy and stay fit," said Christina, 10, a fourth-grader at Manor View.

Sarah said her dad "is so proud."

"When we grow up, we may just start our own running program," said Sarah, 9, a fourth-grader who is home-schooled.

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