ORLANDO, Fla. - You can, they're just two simple words. But the Girls on the Run organization says not enough young girls are hearing them.
It's a message that rings loud and clear in the classroom and on the field at Bay Meadows Elementary School's after-school program.
A group of nearly 20 pre-teens dressed in T-shirts and running shoes gather in a circle, and the conversation quickly turns to gratitude, relaxation and exercise.
Girl's On The Run is a character-building program for girls with an emphasis on running.
Kim Knowles and a hand full of other volunteer moms split time as coaches, mentors and friends.
They lead the conversation, teaching the girls life lessons, often using their own experience as a guide.
"We work with the girls, talking about leadership, problem solving and things that they do to build their confidence in the classroom and in the community," Knowles said.
Knowles says teaching the girls to value their self image and individuality is one of the core values of the program. The lessons are reinforced through exercise and running.
"The girls are running and they're getting healthy and we're showing them what to eat and how to be healthy. In the end, they do a 5k, so that's their big reward," she said.
It's also a lesson in persistence and achieving goals.
The organization, which started in 1996 with13 girls in Charlotte, N.C., is now the inspiration for more than 130,000 girls in more than 200 cities.
Knowles says boys at this age often take the lead when it comes to leadership, confidence and sports. She says Girls on the Run hopes to narrow that gap.
Stretching, running and cooldown are part of every session. It's a can-do atmosphere with an emphasis on girl power.
Katie Starkey has two daughters in the program and says it provides a gateway to open conversations that can be difficult to breach in a more intimate setting.
"There are a lot of changes that girls go through and it can be kind of scary. And when we can open up and talk about it openly in a group and know we're not alone, it can be very empowering," Starkey said.
Starkey says another focus is teamwork and to not be divided by competition. She echoes the mission of Girls On The Run.
"I hope they learn to be strong, independent girls who aren't afraid to help other girls out and who can learn to live not just physically healthy, but emotionally healthy lives," she said.
Anyone wanting to learn more about starting a Girls on the Run chapter can find more information at Girls on the Run Orlando.
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