About 16 girls and several adults sat on plastic mats in a circle on the playground at Fairview Elementary School one warm spring afternoon, listening intently to what “Joking Julie” had to say.
“Do you ever think that sometimes a friend is not listening to what you say?” asked Julie. “How does it make you feel?” Hands shot up among those in the circle. “Angry,” said one girl. “Sad,” offered another.
“We’re going to see what that looks like,” said Julie, who with a team of coaches divided the girls, ages 8 to 11, into pairs and lined them up. “Show me what it looks like when you ignore someone,” she instructed. “And partners, show me how it makes you feel.”
The program helps girls build their self-confidence and self-esteem and learn how to make healthier choices.
It was all part of a lesson called, “It Takes Courage,” which “Joking Julie” Lyons volunteered to share with the team of third- through fifth-grade girls at the Fairfield school who signed up to be part of Girls on the Run, an after-school program that teaches girls to celebrate their unique, healthy selves.
It’s a 10-week empowerment program that culminates in the girls experiencing the power of giving by doing a community impact project and the joy of achievement, by running in a 5K event with other girls from Napa and Solano counties. But it’s really more of a journey to help the girls build their self-confidence and self-esteem and learn how to make healthier choices.
When “Joking Julie” is not teaching lessons in courage, she’s a pharmacy technician at NorthBay Healthcare. She teamed up with “Noble Niki” Petersen, NorthBay’s director of Respiratory Services, to adopt the Fairview team, along with a trio of teachers at the school: “Lively Laura” Gay, “Laughing Lilly” Thompson, and “Dedicated Danielle” Nevins. Every one of the coaches—and the girls—picked an adjective that starts with the first letter in their name on their first day together and have continued to use them throughout the program.
“Fairview Elementary seemed like an excellent choice, because NorthBay already adopts the school every December, as part of our ‘Adopt-a-School Program,'” explained Julie. “We have a bond.”
Actually, when the call went out for volunteer life coaches, a dozen NorthBay employees raised their hand and expressed interest. After schedules were checked and a full day of training was completed, seven of those interested volunteers were partnered at schools in Solano and Napa counties.
“We were thrilled by the response,” said Janet Todd, executive director for Girls on the Run, Napa & Solano. “We are grateful for NorthBay’s support and partnership to empower more healthy girls, particularly those underserved.”
“It’s such a great program,” said Julie. “I coached with my sister in Napa a few years ago, and I helped Girls on the Run get in touch with NorthBay for a donation a couple of years ago. I’m thrilled to see the connection is still growing.”
“Adventurous April” Massett, program manager for the Solano schools, stopped by to watch the Fairview team in action and became a high-five magnet, as girls circled round her on a relay.
“I wish there was a program like this when I was younger,” said April. “I think it would have saved me from a bit of heartache and uncertainty.”
April was finishing a run when she saw posters about Girls on the Run and a light went off. “I wanted my daughter to have that experience: To do a run and to feel strong and confident.”
She learned how the program’s creator, Molly Barker, came up with the idea after a run herself. At that moment, she felt strong, powerful and in control. She pitched it to a friend who said, “You’ve got something here.”
That inaugural group of 13 girls met in North Carolina 20 years ago. Today, Girls on the Run International has served more than 1 million girls. In fact, a middle school component, titled “Heart and Soul” has also been developed to help girls as they continue their journeys.
Girls on the Run Napa & Solano is a small local nonprofit that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, with more than 3,700 girls empowered. This spring 14 schools participated from Solano County, and in the fall, 27 have signed up, said April.
“It’s fun, but not competitive,” she explained. “It’s not just about movement, it’s building a life skill tool kit, from nutrition to taking care of their bodies, social skills, to feeling good about the way they treat people and are treated. It even teaches them how to reach out and contribute to their communities.”
And that’s a perfect match with NorthBay, says Joking Julie. “NorthBay strives to ensure that local residents receive compassionate care close to home by having access to resources that promote health and fitness. Girls on the Run is one of those resources where not only the girls benefit from the program but they are excited to teach their parents and friends what they’ve learned,” said Julie. “The community grows together.”
Niki agrees. “I feel a sense of giving back to the community that helps support NorthBay. I feel connected to these girls in a very positive way, and that I leave a good legacy for my community.”