Despite the stresses she faced as a teenager, she was able to forget them while she ran, and eventually found herself growing confident in more areas of her life besides running.
Having been an avid runner, Cooke knew how running had impacted her own life. One day, she saw a magazine ad for an organization called Girls on the Run that introduces young girls to running and decided Cleveland needed its own chapter so local girls could experience its benefits as well.
Girls on the Run is an international nonprofit organization that holds after-school programs for girls in grades 3-5 and 6-8. The programs consist of twice-weekly curriculum-based sessions that incorporate a variety of activities, including running with the goal of training for a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) run at the end of a school semester.
“What drew me to the program was thinking back through my own challenges in school,” said Cooke, executive director of the Girls on the Run of Southeast Tennessee council. “We are able to reach out to these girls before they go through the pressures of being in high school.”
Each after-school session follows a set lessons that can cover everything from eating healthy to avoiding peer pressure to getting along well with others. Girls in the program also spend time playing games.
After going through a “long application process” and assembling a group of board members to start the local council in 2011, Girls on the Run of Southeast Tennessee started its first after-school programs in two local schools this past fall. Girls from Mayfield Elementary School and North Lee Elementary School were the first to complete the program. Everything the girls had learned during the local program’s first semester culminated with young girls donned in matching green T-shirts, pink tutus, flowered headbands and other colorful accessories running 3.1 miles on the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway on Dec. 8.
Cooke called the first after-school programs successful, and said she was thankful for the support received from the schools, parents and others in the community.
“We have had a lot of support,” Cooke said.
Though the girls are working toward the goal of running a 5K each semester, Cooke said the run itself is not timed and that the girls do not in any way compete against each other. She said the main focus of the event is helping the girls learn that they can achieve the goals they set for themselves. Cooke said she hopes completing the program leaves each girl with a sense of accomplishment and newfound confidence.
“It is so much more than running,” Cooke said. “It will help to make sure they know their decisions make an impact.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of all children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, a percentage that is triple what it was 33 years ago. With obesity becoming more of a problem, Cooke said she believes Girls on the Run’s mission of helping girls live healthy lives is increasingly important.
Cooke said she has seen girls in the program who struggled with their weight reach their goal of running a 5K with encouragement from like-minded peers.
“We see girls all shapes and sizes,” she said. “Many of the girls or not prepared for running. Once they realize it’s not competitive, they relax. I think it helps them to see exercise differently.”
The Girls on the Run program is designed to be completed in one school semester, but girls are welcome to participate as many times as they would like as long as there is space available. Regardless of whether or not the girls repeat the program or continue running on their own, Cooke said she hopes the girls learn to “embrace their uniqueness” and gain confidence as they work toward their goals.
The local Girls on the Run council started with 15 volunteers, and that number has since doubled to about 30. Volunteers help with the biweekly after-school sessions, and each girl is paired with an adult “running buddy” to help cheer them on and make sure they are doing well during the final 5K run.
The organization is currently expanding into three new elementary schools this spring and hopes to add even more this fall. Cooke said she is also speaking with school administrators about introducing a similar program called Girls on Track in local middle schools this fall.
“The schools have loved it,” Cooke said. “We hope to keep growing.”
Joining Mayfield and North Lee on the list of schools with the after-school program will be Arnold Elementary, Waterville Elementary and Tennessee Christian Preparatory School.
The Girls on the Run programs at most of the local schools limit their membership to girls who attend the particular school. However, girls who are home schooled or attending a school without a program can join the programs that meet at Mayfield Elementary and Waterville Elementary.
To learn more about the local Girls on the Run council, visit GirlsontheRunSETN.org or find the “Girls on the Run of Southeast Tennessee” page on Facebook.