Girls on the Run gives free gear to young girls to empower them through exercise

Two people wave from behind stacks of running shoes.
Girls on the Run Minnesota staff Liz Gallardo (left) and Cat Nakhornsak (right) help distribute running gear to participants ahead of the 2023 spring season.
Courtesy of Kathleen Cannon

If you’re a runner or know someone who is, you know it’s a lot less enjoyable without the right gear. The Minnesota chapter of Girls on the Run is outfitting more than a thousand girls around the state with shoes, pants and sports hijabs so they can be ready to hit the trails.

Kathleen Cannon has been executive director of Girls on the Run since December. She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the project.

Cannon said Girls on the Run starts with identifying barriers young women may face.

“Maybe they’re running in boots or hand me down flip flops … we don’t want them to worry about what they are wearing so they can really focus on what matters, like the people around them and the way their bodies feel,” she said.

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Just under 100 Muslim girls in Minnesota requested a sports hijab, a specially designed hijab used during exercise, according to Cannon.

The organization hosts practices after school to train for a 5K over the course of 10 weeks. Beyond equipment, Girls on the Run also hopes to help young girls create healthy relationships with exercise.

“Girls at this age, about eight to 13, are so impressionable. We provide a healthy snack, because food is fuel. We don’t celebrate with food or say, ‘Oh, here’s a reward if you push yourself.’ We say, ‘Hey, this helps us move our body.’”

Spring registration for Girls on the Run is closed but Cannon said there are still other ways to get involved. There is a 5K in June, a summer program called Camp Girls on the Run in July, and fall registration, which opens August 1.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: If you're a runner or know someone who is, it's a lot less enjoyable without the right gear. Well, this week, the Minnesota chapter of Girls on the Run is outfitting more than a thousand girls around the state with shoes, pants and sports hijabs so they can be ready to hit the trails. Kathleen Cannon has been executive director of the Girls on the Run program since December. Hey, Kathleen. Welcome to the program.

KATHLEEN CANNON: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: For those who are not familiar, what is Girls on the Run?

KATHLEEN CANNON: Oh, Girls on the Run is fantastic. It's third through eighth grade girls, a magical age group, where we work together in small teams of, like, eight to 20 girls in this age window, to train for a 5K over the course of 20 lessons, so 10 weeks, twice a week after school, all over Minnesota.

So running's involved, but we like to say it's not the point at all, where it's a lot of social emotional learning led by volunteer coaches. So we have lessons and activities that incorporate running, but are really about what does it mean to have a healthy friendship or stand up for yourself or responding to peer pressure, that type of thing. So it's noncompetitive, but it ends with this celebratory 5K.

INTERVIEWER: And these girls have not run, right? I mean, they're not really athletes.

KATHLEEN CANNON: [LAUGHS] Nope. Some certainly are. We like to say forward is a pace. And so we'll have girls who cartwheel for most of the 5K or who will take it nice and slow. And we say, hey, personal best. All paces are welcome. And all abilities are welcome. So I'd say some are athletes, but lots of them-- this is one of the first times they've broken a sweat.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. Good for them for getting out there. So this is not--


INTERVIEWER: --the first year-- because I certainly wouldn't do it. This is not the first year that you provided gear like shoes and hijabs to girls who wear them. When did it become clear that you needed to be doing to get some of this gear?

KATHLEEN CANNON: Yeah. Well, we quickly realized that if we know every girl can benefit from Girls on the Run, how are we going to make sure that they're able to? And some of that starts with just identifying barriers to access. And we've got all these girls who would love to participate. They're growing fast. And maybe they're running in rain boots or their sister's hand-me-down flip-flops or something. And understanding, OK, if we can provide you with brand new shoes and pants and sports hijab so you do not have to worry about what you're wearing and you can really focus on what matters like the people around you and the way you feel in your body and what sorts of goals you want to set today, we know it makes a huge difference.

And that everybody feels welcome, they'll feel that sense of belonging. And so we realized, well, that's a problem we can solve. If we know that's a barrier to access, let's see what we can do. We love to tell our volunteers and also the girls in the program that you really just got to bring your best self and we'll take care of the rest. And so this is one way we can show that's true.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, a sports hijab, for folks not familiar, talk about that and how many girls use them in your program.

KATHLEEN CANNON: Yeah. This is the word for the Muslim headscarf that lots of Muslim girls will wear. And so our sports hijabs-- we work with the local company called Kalsoni. They have a Girls on the Run logo on the side of the sports hijab. And we have just under 100 Muslim girls across Minnesota who requested a sports hijab. So a lot of times, they might hesitate if they don't have access to modest activewear or if they're like, OK, I want to do this athletic activity, but does this align with my religious values? And telling every girl when they sign up, hey, if you need a sports hijab, we can provide one, we know that makes a huge difference in making sure that everyone knows they belong.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, you're talking about equipment. But I'm wondering about time and transportation also maybe being some issues for some families.

KATHLEEN CANNON: Yes, always. One way we try to help with that is by holding Girls on the Run practice in places where girls already are so that getting them home might be its own challenge, but usually, practice is right after school for 90 minutes, so where girls already are in communities they already know with friends their age and led by trusted adults.

And we try to offer different days of the week and different times after school to help it work for more and more family schedules. But I'd say transportation-- that's a perpetual issue. We're doing our best to crack the code, but it's sure complicated getting kids where they need to be in order to participate in these types of activities.

INTERVIEWER: Right. This is-- we're talking about the metro area here as well as really around the state of Minnesota. And you're giving out clothing in all these places, right?



KATHLEEN CANNON: We're giving out clothing in Duluth and Rochester and Grand Marais and really all over the place. Largely centered in the metro, but the statewide reach of Girls on the Run is exciting.

INTERVIEWER: Great. You know, we had somebody on the show yesterday. We were talking about this TikTok craze where you have a video of yourself and you're talking about what you ate during the day. And we had an individual on the air who's concerned about how that could fuel eating disorders. So I'm wondering, how do you make sure girls in your program are developing a healthy relationship to exercise?

KATHLEEN CANNON: Oh, that is such an important question. And we know girls-- I mean, all of us, really, but especially girls in this age, eight to 13 window, are so impressionable, right? They're exactly who is looking around and saying, OK, what messages am I getting from people around me about how I should behave or what they expect from me or what's OK to put in my body, that type of thing.

So first of all, we provide a healthy snack at every practice. And food is fuel, so we don't celebrate with food or say, oh, here's a reward if you go extra far today, or if you push yourself, you get double. We just say, hey, this helps us move our body. So we start with a healthy snack. And then we also have lots of lessons around fueling our healthy pace, what it means to say, OK, how am I treating my body? And how do I balance out unhealthy activities with healthier activities? Some of that involves eating, but some of that involves movement. And a lot of that involves rest.

I think those kind of open conversations, helping girls understand, OK, what's important to me? And if I don't feel great, why? And how can I change that? Or who do I talk to if I have questions about what's OK and what's not or what's appropriate and what's not? Like, all of that is really trying to give them the tools so that they head into adolescence and beyond. They know that other people are watching out for them and that they have what they need inside of them to choose their own adventure in ways that are empowering.

INTERVIEWER: Kathleen, before you go, give us a success story. Do you have a girl that may have not done much in the way of physical activity, maybe she's gone all the way to running a marathon?

KATHLEEN CANNON: [LAUGHS] I don't know about all the way to a marathon, although I'm sure we do have some of those. But I would say that we get success at Girls on the Run in lots of different ways. I'm thinking of a girl, and this is from a few years ago now, who crossed the finish line at our Girls on the Run 5K with her dad. And every girl in the program participates-- like, they do the 5K with an adult running buddy alongside them.

And as they crossed the finish line, she shouted, I did it! I'm a doer! Her dad kind of laughed and said, well, what do you mean? And she said, well, I always thought I was more of a watcher. And the idea that they're crossing the finish line and saying, OK, I'm not just an observer in life. I'm a participant. Like I can be the one who gets this medal, who steps into leadership, who used my voice today. I'd argue that is one of the best success stories around.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, I'm glad to hear that. Well, this was fun. Thank you so much for joining us, and best of luck.

KATHLEEN CANNON: Thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, before we go, I-- just a quick question here. I know that the spring registration is closed. And so if people are listening, they might want to enroll their girl, you know? What do folks need to do to sign up for the fall programs?

KATHLEEN CANNON: Oh, yeah. Head on over to our website. It's for Girls On The Run Minnesota. And there's so many ways to get involved, even before the fall program. We've got 5K happening in June where we need lots of volunteers. We have a summer program called Camp Girls on the Run that's happening in July. And then registration for our fall season opens August 1st.

So if this sounds like the type of thing that's up your alley, let's get in touch. It's never too late or too early to start the conversation. Because there's so much good work happening statewide, and we would love to have anyone interested involved.

INTERVIEWER: Great. All right, Kathleen. Thank you so much.

KATHLEEN CANNON: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

INTERVIEWER: Kathleen Cannon is executive director of Girls on the Run Minnesota.

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