Getting involved with the community outside campus is something Eastern Illinois University encourages in each of its students and employees, and one rapidly growing organization is providing ample opportunity for those affiliated with EIU to leave a positive impact on Charleston’s youth.
Beth Gillespie is the council director for Girls on the Run East Central Illinois; she had been involved with GOTR in Michigan and envisioned starting a chapter in her new home once she and her husband, Michael, made the move to Charleston. The local chapter started up on May 1, 2011, with a ten-fold participation increase – both in terms of the young girls for whom it‘s designed as well as the adult volunteers who make it possible – since its inception.
“We hosted our first season in Fall 2011 and had 15 girls in the program,” remembers Gillespie. “We grew to have four sites for Spring 2012 with 57 girls, and this fall we have had explosive growth. We’re now in five counties and we served 204 girls.”
So what is Girls on the Run?
“Girls on the Run is an after-school education and empowerment program for girls in third-to-fifth and sixth-to-eighth grade,” explained Gillespie. “They meet twice a week over a 10-week season and cover topics that include health, fitness, how women are portrayed in the media, how to have a positive body image, we talk about celebrating gratitude, getting plugged into your true values, how to deal with bullies, the impact of gossip, and how to make a difference in your community.
“While the girls are going through these structured lessons, they’re also training to run a 5K so that when they cross the finish line they think: ‘If I can do this, I can do anything I set my mind to.’ This is the entire intent of the Girls on the Run curriculum.”
The most recent season wrapped up on Nov. 10. Gillespie said that in addition to the youth who participated, more than 300 volunteers were on hand at the race to support the girls. Thanks to Gillespie’s recruiting efforts throughout the community, the organization has actually been inundated with just about as many volunteers as it can accommodate.
One of those volunteers is sophomore elementary education major Amanda Ziencina, who acts as one of the program’s lead coaches after being involved at a more casual level during prior seasons.
“I got involved when Beth came to visit all of Greek Life and gave her spiel about how she got involved and how she was trying to form this program here,” recalls Ziencina. “I want to become a teacher, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to hone my skills and get this key interaction with girls of the age I want to teach.”
Ziencina started out just attending a 5K and providing support to the participants, but says her involvement quickly turned into an “obsession.”
“I looked all summer to find fun and exciting things for the girls,” said Ziencina, who says she particularly enjoys watching friendships blossom throughout the 10 weeks.
“They go in pretty much knowing no one or maybe one other girl,” explains Ziencina. “They get that confidence to talk to people and meet them and have fun. They’re young; they should be hanging out with friends and not worrying about what they look like. Just have that carefree childhood. Nowadays everybody’s focusing on appearance and what you should be instead of your true self.”
Gillespie says Ziencina is one of approximately 20 Eastern students working as a volunteer coach in Charleston and Mattoon. Many faculty and staff members are also heavily involved.
“Girls on the Run could not be successful without the support of Eastern Illinois’ community and campus. It has truly been an incredible partnership between EIU, the Mattoon YMCA, and Girls on the Run to make this program possible.”
And while the girls participating are obviously benefiting from the program’s exceptional message, the volunteers are reaping rewards of their own.
“For me and for many of the other coaches, you kind of realize things about yourself,” said Ziencina. “You work on thinking of yourself in a more positive way. It just helps you boost your confidence and encourages you to keep moving forward and accomplishing the goals you’ve set.”
Gillespie has heard similar feedback.
“The No. 1 thing we hear is that they feel this program has changed them and that interacting with the girls has made them stronger and feel better about themselves than they ever could have anticipated,” said Gillespie. “They don’t expect to feel like they’re the lucky ones at the end of the season and feel like they’ve been changed by interacting with the girls as much as they have. It’s a surprise, because they go there to change lives and don’t always understand their lives are going to be changed as well.”