Special Girls on the Run
Two evenings a week, you’ll find six girls running around an empty parking lot as part of the Girls on the Run of the Triangle’s only team of girls with special needs. This special needs team is the only one of its kind for the international nonprofit.
Girls on the Run (GOTR), a national program based in Charlotte, is a positive youth development program that creatively integrates running to teach life lessons. The team for girls with special needs is the brainchild of Leslie Quackenbush, a longtime GOTR Triangle coach who is pursuing her master’s in public health. Quackenbush worked with the Triangle chapter’s executive director Juliellen Simpson-Vos and GOTR International to tailor the GOTR curriculum for girls with special needs. (Pictured at left, Girls on the Run participants Angela Kissell and Emma Waterman complete a lap at Abilitations Children’s Therapy and Wellness Center in Raleigh.)
“The coolest thing is that the idea came from one of our coaches,” Simpson-Vos says. “She has such a passion for wanting to serve a diverse range of girls.”
Quackenbush co-coaches the GOTR team at Abilitations Children’s Therapy & Wellness Center in Raleigh.
“It has been incredible,” Quackenbush says of the Abilitations team. “I feel like every lesson we have, you can see it in their faces; these girls have breakthroughs.”
A World of Difference
One of those girls is fifth-grader Lizzie Swinarski, who was born with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy. “Once GOTR started, I felt better about explaining my disability to [my friends], because we’re all different,” Lizzie says.
Lizzie’s mother, Patricia, says GOTR is a welcomed extracurricular activity for her daughter, since children with special needs typically have fewer traditional options. The program is equipping Lizzie with strategies to handle issues like bullying, as well as strategies for promoting wellness.
“I think it makes a world of difference for them,” Patricia says. “They meet people who encourage them and let them know it’s OK to be different, and they can do the same thing as you and I can.”
The Girls on the Run program culminates in a 5k race, which was adapted to a 1-mile run for this special team. Lizzie completed the race with the inaugural special needs team last season.
“I was so proud,” Patricia says. “Everyone was cheering. It was a very good moment.”
Lizzie and hundreds of other girls will cross the finish line again at this season’s race, to be held April 12 at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. (Pictured above at right, Girls on the Run Coach T.R. Goins talks with participants Emily Kinlaw and Danielle Lester during a lesson about gratitude.)
Setting the Standard
Quackenbush and Simpson-Vos hope the Abilitation’s team can eventually serve as a template for other GOTR councils.
All of the girls on the special needs team receive full scholarships to participate. Individual donations and local sponsorships help fund the experience for hundreds of girls council-wide. Community members can donate to the Triangle council or consider becoming a coach. Pictured at left. Girls on the Run coach T.R. Goins hugs participant Emily Kinlaw during practice while Deanna Choplin looks on. Below, Girls on the Run participants Lizzie Swinarski and Angela Kissell laugh during a lesson on gratitude at Abilitations Children's Therapy and Wellness Center in Raleigh.)
Quackenbush hopes the program continues to flourish. “I’ve seen how this program has benefitted the girls, but it has been so influential on me, too,” she says.
After a typical practice last semester, Quackenbush saw the day’s lesson pay off. She complimented the runners’ efforts and called Lizzie an athlete after she completed a lap.
“No one has ever called me that before,” Quackenbush remembers Lizzie saying. “I didn’t know I could be one.”
Elizabeth Poindexter is a marketing coordinator with DurhamCares and volunteers as a coach with GOTR.