Amy Frisch, a New Paltz therapist, was running in the Iron Girl half-marathon in Florida last March when around mile six of the sweltering hot race, she had a realization.
“In the middle of the race, something rustled in me, and I felt like we needed [running] in my community,” she said.
A year later, Frisch is now the coordinator of the Ulster County chapter of Girls on the Run, a program that encourages young girls to use exercise and facilitated discussion to help develop positive body images and healthy lifestyles.
Girls on the Run became an international program in 2000, but started as a pilot program in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C. to provide pre-adolescent girls with “the necessary tools to embrace their individual strengths and successfully navigate life experiences,” according their website.
Having a Master’s degree in social work and operating a private practice, Frisch primarily works with girls in their pre-teens and college-aged girls, and as a runner, saw a distinct connection between her two passions. At her Iron Girl race, she spoke to a woman involved in the program, and after that mid-race revelation, decided there was no going back.
Frisch first implemented the program at Lenape Elementary school in grades three through five, and since then, has expanded it to grades six through eight anywhere in Ulster County, known as the Ulster County Middle School Team.
The cost of the program is $150 per girl, but participants are charged $135, though there is also a scholarship fund girls can apply for, Frisch said. Community members can choose to sponsor a child. The international program is sponsored by corporations, while Frisch looks to local establishments to sponsor the Ulster County-based program as they expand.
The elementary school program is housed at Lenape Elementary School, but the middle school team practices take place at Frisch’s office, providing a unique challenge, according to the project intern and SUNY New Paltz fourth-year sociology major Deborah Walnicki.
“The biggest challenge in implementing the program thus far has been securing a space for the middle school team. Because we were denied access to the New Paltz Middle School, we have decided to hold the program for the middle school girls out of Amy’s office,” Walnicki said. “This may cause some challenges for girls in terms of transportation to the program, however I believe we can address those difficulties as they arise in order to support every girl.”
Girls on the Run’s international agency selects the age groups for the program — grades three through five and six through eight — based on what are considered high risk time for girls, according Frisch. But the program emphasizes more than just exercise.
The girls in both the Lenape Elementary School program and the Ulster County Middle School program train twice a week for 90 minutes each. The first 45 minutes, “circle time,” are dedicated to discussion in both one large group and smaller groups, Frisch said.
“It’s the time when the girls are connected to each other, feeling safe and supported. Each session has a topic, like healthy friendships with girls or body image,” Frisch said. “We talk about what is like to be a girl, building confidence, discussing tools and strategy. Or sometimes we will do role playing. It’s really about finding your voice.”
The following 45 minutes are used for stretching, relay races and fun, creative running activities. Frisch said some coaches are yoga instructors — an attempt to expose the girls to the many diverse ways to be physically active.
All of the training, discussion and learning the girls experience throughout the season will culminate in a final 5k run that will take place June 14 in Cornwall.
For the future of the local chapter of Girls on the Run, Frisch envisions the program spreading to at least two more individual elementary schools in the county and getting more mom-and-pop stores on board as sponsors. She even hopes to expand to the college level.
Frisch wants to introduce a Girls on the Run club on the SUNY New Paltz campus and eventually teach a three-hour human services-based course about the non-for-profit world and fundraising that would give students first-hand experience by allowing them to work with the local Girls on the Run chapters.
Typically, the different chapters’ run is integrated into a bigger race already taking place, like a Y.M.C.A. run, Frisch said. Out of the potential 2,000 people racing, several hundred could be Girls on the Run participants. Though this program’s final race for the Ulster County chapter’s 300 participants will be held in Cornwall and will be its own individual race, Frisch hopes to someday move it even closer to home.
“I would love to see it happen in New Paltz,” Frisch said. “There’s something to be said about keeping girls in these big groups and be represented in our own little town as well.”