Just as everything else around the world has been postponed or cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic, so too has the popular nonprofit physical activity-based youth development program Girls on the Run. But a virtual version of the empowering program is in place so area girls don’t lose a step.

Just as a reminder, Girls on the Run started in 1996 and there are over 200 councils in the United States and Canada. The 10-week program is held in the fall and spring, and along with following a curriculum that focuses on self-esteem and empowerment, the girls also do a Community Impact Project and complete a 5K.

Read More: Girls on the Run is helping local students learn life lessons through physical activity

The spring season of GOTR at schools and community sites was cancelled, as was the season-capping 5K run, which had been scheduled for May 30. Locally, this affects 1,400 girls who had been registered to take part in Lebanon and Lancaster counties.

To make up for that, at least in part, GOTR is offering GOTR At Home, created and designed by GOTR International (GOTRI) and local councils.

“It’s intended to be a supplement to our traditional in-person programming, aimed at continuing our commitment to serving the girls in the program … so that our girls and coaches stay connected, active, and engaged in positive activities,” Carrie Johnson, executive director of Girls on the Run of Lancaster and Lebanon, and Kylie Homan, Program Coordinator, said in joint responses to emailed questions.

The first lessons were released March 20 and GOTRI has provided two lessons a week in PDF and video formats; 12 lessons are planned and more will be released, Johnson and Homan said.

Coaches were encouraged to talk with their students in whatever manner is most efficient, including reaching out to those without reliable internet access, Johnson and Homan said.

“GOTRI has provided guidance regarding the use of (video chat) technology,” they said. “However, we have not made any requirement for this connection, as we understand the additional responsibilities many of our coaches are taking on at this time, (like) managing their households and working from home.”

The lessons and activities are “broadly tied to the overall learning goals of our programs, but (are) not simply a virtual or modified version of the typical Girls on the Run and Heart and Sole curricula,” they said. GOTR is for girls in grades three through five; Heart and Sole is for girls in grades six through eight.

The lessons do include topics from the usual curriculum — such as self-care, healthy relationships, and empowerment, for example — but they also focus on situations girls might be dealing with during the pandemic, like “changing family dynamics, school closings, and the inability to connect with family and friends,” Johnson and Homan said.

Others have included “gratitude, (coping) when things get difficult, standing up for ourselves and others, and positivity,” they added.

Johnson said she doesn’t know exactly how many girls are participating in the At Home effort.

“We wish we had a better way to gauge (that),” she wrote in an email. “We do know that we have heard from many families and coaches that they are loving the activities provided by GOTR At Home.”

“Because it is completely voluntary for both coaches and girls, we don’t have any registration numbers or anything of that sort to go by,” Homan added.

One coach participating in the At Home effort is community volunteer Laurie Funk, who leads a Heart and Sole team made up of girls from Lebanon Middle School and Lebanon Catholic School. She’s in her 8th season and has been with GOTR since fall 2016. Funk also owns The Important Thing Cafe at the Lebanon Farmers’ Market.

After the GOTR staff sent postcards about the At Home program to all the teams, Funk and a fellow coach decided to offer their nine-member squad a weekly fitness challenge as well. The girls will receive a letter and challenge chart in the mail, along with a mini counter device. The challenge starts Monday, April 20.

“The goal is for the girls to complete five small workout challenges, like running laps around their house, (doing) jumping jacks, and (doing) planks each week,” Funk wrote in emailed responses to questions. “After they complete each week of challenges, they will take a picture of their chart and send it to me.

“The mini counter will help them track the number of laps they run and exercises they do as they work out daily to complete the weekly challenges,” she added.

The girls who share their progress will receive a small prize from the coaches and their names will be put into a raffle for bigger prizes at the end of the six weeks, Funk said.

Funk thinks it was imperative to “carry on GOTR’s mission while we are negotiating the coronavirus.”

“Engaging the girls with physical exercise and a variety of activities at home is a way to build their physical, emotional, and spiritual strengths,” Funk said in her email, adding she hopes entire families take part.

“It would be a plus for all of us to stay physically active, and it is our hope that we all emerge from this time wiser, stronger, and kinder,” she said.

The culmination of each Girls on the Run season is the celebratory 5K, an event the girls work toward and plan for with great enthusiasm. GOTR is in the process of creating a free Virtual 5K Your Way for the girls who were registered, Johnson and Homan said. It’s presented by Orthopedic Associates of Lancaster and will be held May 29-31.

“Participants (can register online and) will have the option to engage in a run/walk/skip/jump for 3.1 miles and/or an activity card that engages both physical activity and tasks that engage program content,” Johnson and Homan said.

“Our focus has shifted to reaching not just our GOTR girls but (also) the greater community to ensure we continue spreading our important message,” they added.

Participants in GOTR are asked for a suggested donation, based on family income, when they sign up. The cancellation of the spring season means the Lebanon/Lancaster council is in the process of refunding over $125,000 to those families who chose to submit requests.

As with the registration fees, refunds are also being made available on a sliding scale. Families could receive a 100 percent refund (minus processing fees), a 75 percent refund (with 25 percent donated back to GOTR), a 50 percent refund with a 50 percent donation, a 25 percent refund with a 75 percent donation, or a 100 percent donation.

About three-quarters of the families have responded regarding refunds, Johnson said. Payments already made cannot be credited toward the fall season.

“We were unable to provide credits toward the next season, as we cannot guarantee a team will form at certain sites,” Johnson and Homan added. “Additionally, our spring season is about double the size of our fall season, and many of the sites participate in the spring only.”

Other costs, including training 430 coaches, creating the virtual programming, and continuing daily operations, “are impossible to recoup,” Johnson said in a separate March 26 press release.

“As a non-profit, we are in emergency status, and will continue to lean on our friends for support,” Johnson and Homan said. “We continue our fundraising connections with program sponsors, as well as some new initiatives, such as a Sponsor a Girl campaign. We also continue to encourage individuals to consider being a SoleMate for virtual races.”

Fall season registration is due to open in August and the season begins in early September. The fall 5K, also presented by OAL, is slated for Nov. 21 at Millersville University. A GOTR Summer Camp is also in the works for June 2021.

To donate to Girls on the Run of Lancaster and Lebanon, please visit www.gotrlancaster.org/Donate.

Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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