When Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, appeared before students at Southern Elementary last week, eyes brightened, smiles widened and girls looked at her like she was a rock star.
But the 50-year-old triathlete hopes her program teaches girls to recognize their own inner rock star and the strength that comes from being true to yourself and proud of who you are.
During her hourlong visit at the Lexington school, Barker shared stories both silly and sweet. She also signed a shirt for each girl to wear when they run in a 5K race Saturday.
Barker, who was in Lexington last week at the invitation of the local Girls on the Run chapter, also spoke to students at Rosa Parks Elementary School and was the keynote speaker at Women Leading Kentucky's Women's Business and Leadership Conference.
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For Barker, running is in the title of her program but it is about much more. It's about letting every girl know she is special and capable, said Barker, who started the non-profit in 1996.
In the 12-week program, girls ages 8 to 13 learn about staying fit and about themselves, working up to running a 5K. But the program also helps girls learn to make good decisions and stay out of trouble, said Ginger Perkins, Southern's family resource center coordinator and a Girls on the Run coach. She said she has seen the change in the girls at Southern, not just when they are on the track.
It's helped them have the confidence to raise their hand more in class, to be more outgoing and to reach out to new friends, she said.
Mandi Jackson said she never particularly thought of her daughter, Bailey, 10, as shy or lacking in confidence. But, she said, "she thrives in this program. It's been fabulous for her."
Nearly 75 percent of the girls participating in Lexington and six surrounding counties get a scholarship to help cover the $150 cost of the program, said Katherine Stone, a local board member. The group also offers a sliding fee scale based on income.
Barker founded Girls on the Run in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C. Today, there are Girls on the Run councils in more than 190 cities across North America, serving more than 150,000 girls and women each year. She told the girls at Southern she was inspired by her then-4-year-old daughter, who dressed in a boa, plastic heels and an elaborate ensemble, stood before a mirror and told her mom how much she loved both her pretty eyes and her heart.
Barker said she hopes that feeling never fades for her child and that the group she helped inspire will help other girls.
"It really is about love," she told the girls, who sat mesmerized in a circle as she spoke. "That's the most important thing."
Stone said anyone interested in having Girls on the Run at their school or in their community should visit the local Web site, Gotrcentralky.org. And, she said, grown-ups need not think that they have to be a triathlete to be a coach or volunteer.
"It's easier to teach than Sunday school," she said.
Local Girls on the Run chapter