An estimated 425 runners take off on the 5K run through Mattoon on Saturday morning.

By Scotty Gilkey

Jay Grabiec said he didn’t run much in high school.

But he does now, and he wants to inspire his own children to learn healthy habits.

Grabiec, an online specialist and photographer at Eastern Illinois University, was among the estimated 425 people who endured gusty winds and temperatures in the 30s on Saturday morning at the Mattoon YMCA for the Girls On The Run Fall 5K race.

Girls on the Run is an after-school program for girls in third through fifth grade that culminates in a 5K run the second week in November. The program started in 2011 in Mattoon, expanding to Charleston the following year. The program now includes boys, who participated Saturday as well. 

Girls on the Run coordinator Sarah Dowell

A spring run took place in Charleston at Trojan Hill the first two years before  moving to EIU until 2016. A few years ago, GOTR focused instead on a fall run that now takes place at the Mattoon YMCA.

Saturday’s event had about 425 participants in the 5K run and about 300 volunteers, a large number of them affiliated with EIU.

A crowd cheered those finishing the 5K run through Mattoon on Saturday morning.

GOTR is not exclusively a running program, says GOTR coordinator Sarah Dowell. Rather, she says, it is a positive youth development program. “We are exempt from Title IX because the girls plan to complete a community service project,” Dowell said. 

The lessons, she said, are based on the five C’s: confidence, caring, character, connections, and competence. These lessons teach the girls how to stand up for both themselves and others.

Dowell says she has been inspired by Norah Kilgore Hadley, a youth who was a vocal supporter of this program until she died unexpectedly two years ago at age 13. The t-shirts distributed Saturday honored her by including: “In loving Memory of Nonstop Norah.”

Hadley was a cheerleader for Girls on the Run from the very beginning, Dowell said. 

“She jumped for joy when she became a third-grader and was finally able to participate in the program,” Dowell said. “She used to attend our 5K planning committee meetings before she was even old enough to attend the program. Her sixth-grade year she was a Heart and Sole participant. She continued to volunteer and live by the GOTR core values in middle school. There is no doubt in my mind that she would be a junior coach and/or staff member. Norah led her team with kindness, courage, empathy and passion. When we lost her, others gained life. I feel incredibly blessed to have been part of her life and to get to know her.”

Norah’s family created the Nonstop Norah Celebration fund so that other girls could have the opportunity to experience this program, regardless of their financial situations. The tremendous outpouring of love and support for Nonstop Norah has allowed GOTR to create a scholarship fund in her name.

Two EIU students who volunteered to become coaches made their decisions because of the path they’ve chosen for their education. 

Lexi Claerhout, a special education major at EIU, volunteered as a coach at Carl Sandburg Elementary because she enjoys working with kids. Some days, she said, the girls aren’t motivated to run or participate.

“It is easily fixed by just a little motivation and bringing fun back into things,” Claerhout said. “A lot of times if they’re not motivated, we will walk or run with them and just have conversations to help bring some fun into it because, in the end, it’s not about running.” 

Coaches face that challenge all the time, especially when trying to motivate students right after school ends — when most kids are ready to be set free to talk and play.

“We want to make sure they put their energy into the class. but it can be hard somedays, which is understandable for girls at this age,” Claerhout said. 

Runners start to finish in larger groups Saturday morning.

“We talk about responsibility. We talk about how to be cooperative and use team building skills, how to create connections with parents, caregivers, teaches, their peers and community,” Dowell said. “Our program teaches the girls social and emotional competencies that they can apply to other areas of their life.”

Parents appear thankful for the volunteer coaches.

“I think the biggest takeaway for my daughter and the others is that she was able to complete a task she started,” said Kristina Brunson, whose fourth-grader ran Saturday morning. “And it gives her motivation throughout the week with other peers her age. And it also empowers girls.” 

Some parents, like Grabiec, ran with their sons and daughters to further encourage them to live a healthy lifestyle. “I feel it’s important to support him (his son) in that and kind of lead by example,” Grabiec said.

To complete the 10-week season, each team must develop a community project. Oakland’s Lake Crest Elementary members, for example, will be spreading mulch around the school playground. 

GOTR is already planning for next year.

“We are always recruiting volunteer coaches, but we will begin hitting hard in the fall,” Dowell said. “If schools are interested in offering the program, we have a process to help get it started. We will have coaches training in August and the program starts the week of Labor Day.” 

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