Theresa A. Sterling
On this November day, every girl has logged a personal best, their fastest time so far this year as part of Girls on the Run at Jefferson Somerset Academy in Monticello. Pride beams from their young faces as they share this benchmark with each other, not boasting or gloating but congratulating each other on a job well done.
Courtney Oliver, Assistant Principal at the school, precisely fosters this behavior while facilitating the Somerset program, which is part of the Big Bend Chapter of Girls on the Run and the only registered middle school team in the region. Girls on the Run is a national non-profit organization focusing on girls’ empowerment and has just celebrated 25 years of service to girls across the country. The organization’s tag line, “About So Much More than Running,” rings true at Somerset.
“I wanted to start this group at Jefferson because there are not a lot of opportunities for the students to interact outside of the school setting,” says Oliver, a 16-year education veteran and former champion swimmer. “Sports were a very important part of my childhood. I swam competitively starting at age six and year-round by age eight. My best friends were former teammates and being on a team can build the strongest friendships that last.”
The Girls on the Run curriculum targets building girls’ awareness and confidence of who they are, their values, and respect for each other. Oliver sticks to the lesson themes and strength exercises, but often the girls steer the conversations, and they know there is time to socialize and time to work. Oliver says the middle school curriculum, called Heart and Sole, blends the two parts together well. She says she can see the girls sense they are part of something—a team, their crew.
“They now have someone to check in with, a buddy who cares if they show up, someone to lean on if they are having a tough day. The athletic accomplishments are wonderful, but the friendships hopefully last beyond the practices,” Oliver says. “Middle school is tough…these girls are going through physical, mental and emotional changes, and all during COVID craziness where the unknown is the new normal. This team provides stability and something I hope they look forward to weekly.”
Jakeria James, in seventh grade, said she joined the group because she likes to participate in activities, and she wasn’t doing anything at home after school anyway. She had never really run before, only walked, but with steady training with her team she has noticed a big change.
“I am less tired. I always had to walk, but now I don’t stop as much,” says James, who has asthma and carries an inhaler. “I like getting better at running.”
Team Somerset could be the poster team for Girls on the Run. In a World of Limiting Messages, You Can Give Her Confidence, is a secondary tagline for the organization, and Oliver strives to instill confidence each day in these girls whom she loves as much as is possible for a person not related by blood. It could be a reason for the higher enrollment and participation than in years past—12 girls registered with ten participating on any given day, compared to just three participants in years past.
“We participated in the elementary Girls on the Run version, coordinated by the health department, in the 2018-2019 school year. We had three students participate and none of them showed up to the 5K event at the end of the season. The morning of the 5K the coaches and I stopped exhausting all our phone contacts after 45 minutes and ran the 5K without the girls,” Oliver laments. “I was extremely sad the girls didn’t get the chance to see their hard work pay off.”
The middle school girls seem like a different breed, one whose goals are clearer, their metacognition keen. Leila Strickland originally joined Girls on the Run to help her work on weight loss and building physical stamina. “I had a weight loss competition with my mom,” says the seventh grader. “Now, it’s a way to connect with others and make friends. I can be social, but sometimes I don’t like to be, so Girls on the Run helps me with that.”
Strickland says the exercise helps her mental state, clearing her mind to focus on schoolwork. And, running seems the perfect fit for her. “I feel like being out in nature and exercising is the perfect bubble, a time for me to think. If I’m angry or sad, it helps,” she says.
Strickland says she feels supported by the group and that the girls are very sweet, and she would join again if the program is offered.
“Even the girls I just met are nice. Outside of class, I feel I can say ‘hi’ or have a conversation with them,” says Strickland. “I would definitely do this again.”
Leila’s mother, Barbara Strickland, thinks Girls on the Run is great for her daughter. She was excited that Leila, who came to Jefferson schools just last year, joined a group that has quickly helped her build friendships and increased her physical activity.
“We are older parents. We can’t ride bikes or be out there throwing a ball with her, so this is really good for her,” she says. “Leila has missed a bit because of illness, and it has bothered her. But she’s doing well now and wants to get right back to participating again.”
Oliver says the team is getting comfortable with the physical expectations and those who attend regularly are truly improving athletically. She says after just 14 practices, overall running distance has increased from a half mile to two miles.
“Each day the girls come in and jump into the routine faster. It’s incredible to see their smiles once they finish the longer distance. They cheer each other on and motivate each other through the workouts,” she says.
Oliver likes that the school community supports the girls. Her assistant coach, fifth grade teacher Maribel Rivera, helped recruit girls and is a true motivator, and staff members honk and cheer when they pass the girls after school. Somerset synergy is at work, but commitment makes it happen: Oliver and her husband, Somerset principal Cory Oliver, live in Tallahassee and have children of their own who participate in after school sports, and Cory Oliver is an adjunct professor at Florida State University as well as an advisor for other Somerset schools in the state.
“Our son is in third grade and our daughter is in kindergarten. Our son is in soccer, our daughter is in gymnastics, and I coach Girls on the Run two days a week after school. Evenings are busy, but we make it happen,” Courtney Oliver says.
Oliver has so many hopes for the girl runners, and in hallmark parent/educator fashion, regrets haunt her. “When I signed up to coach this year I was thinking that the time for practice has to be sacred. Nothing can interrupt or get in the way of my being 100% available to the girls. Of all the coaches I had in my swimming career, the best ones were dependable—always there early, prepared and ready to give it 100%. I wanted the girls to feel that way about me, that no matter how the day went, at 3:10 we would have practice and Coach Oliver will be there,” she says. “I only had to miss one of the 14 practices and I am still disappointed in myself for that one.”
That miss was unavoidable. The school had new progress monitoring requirements, and with all her other duties and commitments, it was physically impossible for her to be at practice that day. Oliver still beats herself up for it.
In karmic balance, though, Girls on the Run team members deliver on her hopes. Monae Keaton, also in seventh grade, says she initially joined Girls on the Run because she wanted to get in shape, thinking it would be better for her health if she became more physically active. It has become much more than that.
“I like Girls on the Run because we work as a group. We finish no matter what,” says Keaton.
So, she feels supported?
Her emphatic reply, without a beat of hesitation: Always.
NOTE: The Girls on the Run season finale is completing a 5K run (3.1 miles). The event is Wednesday, December 9, 2020 at 3:30 p.m. on the Somerset campus. Each girl will have two staff members as sponsors/cheerleaders. Family members are welcome to join in the fun at the finish line. Having the event on campus during the week eliminates a lot of participation barriers and the team hopes to have as many supporters from the community as possible. CDC recommendations for health safety will be followed.