Each Monday and Wednesday afternoon, the 18 students participating in Stevenson Elementary School's Girls on the Run team make a circuit around Grandview.

But as they run, the third-grade girls do more than just pick up their pace. They also pick up litter they find along the way.

Girls on the Run is a national organization that promotes empowerment and physical and emotional health for girls.

"A major part of the curriculum is a community-service project to show how as we better ourselves, we can also better the lives of people around us," said Megan Murphy, a parent and one of the 10 volunteer coaches for the Stevenson team.

The team members chose littering as the focus of their project, Murphy said.

"They talked about it and chose the project democratically," she said. "They thought it was an important thing to encourage people not to litter and to pick up litter when they see it."

The girls created posters to promote their message and will hang the placards throughout Stevenson and in the community, Murphy said.

The choice of littering as the focus of their community project was an easy one to make, student Kate McIntosh said.

"It's important to pick up trash around our school and our community," she said. "We decided to make posters and put them up to remind everyone about that."

Picking up litter "is kind of like when you take a shower when you're dirty. You feel clean," Lilly Fisher said. "Maybe if we all pick up trash when we see it, the world would feel like that."

The spring Girls on the Run program lasts for 10 weeks and will culminate with the Stevenson team participating May 20 in the Girls on the Run Central Ohio 5K at Columbus Commons.

During after-school practices on Mondays and Wednesdays, the girls hold a discussion and participate in games and activities relating to a different topic, including bullying and gossip.

"The first part of Girls on the Run, and probably the most important, is about encouraging positive development in young girls," said Jess Sparks, council director for Girls on the Run of Central Ohio.

"We try to offer life lessons to help young girls find a balance in their lives and an inner strength," she said.

"Third grade is an important age because this is the time that girls start losing their natural inner confidence. Studies show that by the time they are teenagers, girls' confidence drops about twice as much as boys," Sparks said.

Girls on the Run looks to avert that dropoff and teach girls how to assert themselves in a healthful way, she said.

The running component of the program helps girls develop a balanced lifestyle through lessons about healthful eating, nutrition, sleep and hygiene, Sparks said.

"They are lessons they can carry with them to lead a healthy lifestyle throughout their life," she said.

The third component of the program is the community-service project, Sparks said.

The lesson is that along with yourself, it's also important to take care of and help other people and your community, she said.

Each practice session includes a run around Grandview, Murphy said.

"The girls can run, jog or walk the route; there's no pressure or need to complete the route in a certain amount of time," she said. "One of the things I love to see is how the girls support each other and interact while they're out running."

The Girls on the Run lesson plan focuses on five core values: competence, confidence, connection, character and caring, Murphy said.

"I've seen their confidence level grow as we're going through the program," she said. "They're more confident about themselves and with each other. They're feeling more comfortable about discussing the issues we talk about with each other."

Student Madelyn Smith said she likes that each Girls on the Run session involves a lesson.

"It teaches you something important each time," she said.

"You're learning something, but you're having fun at the same time," Charlotte Ritzman said. "Like when I'm out running with my friend, we'll run for a while, then we'll slow down and talk for a while, then we start running again. We can talk over things while we run."

Girls on the Run has allowed her to make some new friends, Lilly said.

"You get to learn about each other," she said. "I'm getting to know people I probably wouldn't have become friends with if we weren't running together."

Girls on the Run Central Ohio serves an eight-county area, Sparks said.

"We have approximately 1,430 girls and 565 volunteer coaches participating in Girls on the Run programs this spring," she said. "We anticipate about 1,000 youngsters will be taking part in the 5K run May 20.

"It's such an inspiring sight to see so many young girls coming together and inspiring each other," Sparks said. "It's a chance to for them to celebrate each other."

For more information about Girls on the Run and the upcoming 5K event, visit www.girlsontheruncentralohio.org.

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