In her first year coaching, Mary Uran could see she had an especially reluctant runner on her team.

On the third-grader’s registration form, even her mom doubted the girl could complete a 5K run. The girl didn’t participate in lessons that the after-school program, called Girls on the Run, taught. And she certainly didn’t want to run.

Halfway through the season, though, the girl started jogging a lap or two. By the time the team ran a practice 5K, “the light turned on where she realized, I can do this,” Uran said.

Helping girls do things they think are impossible, like finishing a race, is the goal of Girls on the Run, Uran said.

The nationwide youth development program, which has teams at several south metro elementary schools, uses running as a catalyst to help girls set goals, learn life skills and work together — and it encourages them to be active, too.

“It really came from the idea that girls are put in a box by society,” said Uran, the executive director of Twin Cities Girls on the Run. “It started with, ‘Let’s empower girls, give them the confidence early on, and let’s give them this fantastic tool of running as a stress management technique and an outlet.’ ”

Brought to Minnesota in 2011, the program has 24 Twin Cities sites, most of them elementary schools. Girls in grades three through five meet twice a week to run. Participants pair up with adult running buddies as they prepare for the group’s crowning achievement: running, walking or skipping a 5K race, which was held Saturday at the University of Minnesota.

There are teams in several south metro school districts, including Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Lakeville.

In the fall, the program is expanding geographically and by adding middle school teams, Uran said.

“I have seen such tremendous growth and change from girls on our team,” said Karen Cass Felling, a coach at Greenleaf Elementary in Apple Valley. “It’s changing the lives of the kids.”

Life lessons

Some girls join Girls on the Run because they truly enjoy running. That’s a good thing, because by third grade, girls are already becoming more sedentary than boys, said Uran.

“Running makes you feel free and like the world doesn’t stop you,” said Emily Khammoungkhoun, a fourth grader at Vista View Elementary in Burnsville.

But the program is really about learning skills girls can use throughout their lives, said Felling, the Apple Valley coach who is also a child psychologist.

Every group learns the same 20-lesson curriculum, which covers three themes: self-confidence and taking care of yourself, developing healthy friendships and community service.

While some lessons, like one on bullying, are also touched on in health class, most of the content isn’t otherwise taught, Felling said. For instance, the idea of pacing when the girls run also applies to school projects and life, she said.

Cindy Crawford, a Vista View reading teacher and Girls on the Run coach, thinks the lessons on positive self-talk or having a good attitude are among the most powerful.

Third-grader Nekesa Watua from Vista View has picked up on it.

“You shouldn’t say bad things about yourself and think you’re not pretty, because you are,” she said.

Victoria Olafson, a fourth-grader at Vista View, added that running has taught her that she is powerful.

Both Crawford and Felling said other teachers have shared that girls were using the program’s conflict resolution skills with students in their class.

“I think the strategies we use are good for everybody,” said Cianna Kamara, a Vista View third-grader. “It’s not just about girls using the strategies, it’s about passing it on to others, even to boys.”

Boosting social skills

The group at Vista View in Burnsville is diverse, with students from many cultures and socioeconomic groups. There are students learning English, athletes and non-athletes, and girls with special needs on the team, said Crawford.

The cost of Girls on the Run is based on income so that everyone can participate. Program funding helps students pay for shoes and clothes if needed.

Crawford said she became a coach because she wanted to do more to help the school’s students succeed. The program has made the girls more confident and resilient, she said, but others feel its effects as well. Crawford said the program’s value can be seen in how the girls treat each other.

At last fall’s 5K race, run in frigid weather, there was one girl who hadn’t finished. The whole team ran the last lap with her, shouting one of the program’s trademark cheers: “We’re girls, we know it, and this is how we show it!”