One Saturday every spring, a giant crowd — draped in aqua blue, forest green and hot pink T-shirts — converges on the streets of South Bend.
The expression on some faces of the girls donning the colorful apparel is stern and determined as they sprint down the winding 3.1-mile roadway toward their destination. Others are all smiles, giggling and laughing along with their friends as they jog or walk to the finish line.
While all are participants in a 5K race, the young runners are not competing for any awards or glory. They have earned their prizes long before they lace up their sneakers and hit the streets on race day.
Instead of a shiny trophy to hoist above their heads, the girls earn self-confidence and how to accept that, no matter their flaws, they are special and have something valuable to share with the world. Instead of a chance to wear a sash displaying the words “First Place” in bold letters across their chest, they get to discover how to become a better friend, a more understanding sibling and a greater volunteer in their community.
Sharing these prizes with girls during a crucial time in their lives is the mission of Girls on the Run Michiana and what drives its executive director, Amy Cooper Collier.
Amy’s passion for Girls on the Run is apparent just from the excited look she gets in her eyes the moment she begins talking about the program — though she is not shy about expressing her love outright at several points in a conversation, either.
“You can tell I’m pretty passionate about this,” Amy remarks while, guidebook in hand, she shares the details of each lesson Girls on the Run shares with children during its 10-week curriculum.
The love Amy and her staff have for Girls on the Run can even be seen in the choice of décor at the program’s office. Although the furniture — much of which has the same blue, green and pink color scheme as the shirts the girls wear on race day — is certainly eye-catching, the photos of the smiling girls lining the walls are what draw visitors’ attention.
Behind each of the pictures is a story — one Amy is more than willing to share.
Grabbing a portrait off the wall of a girl in a pink shirt, proudly showing off a medal she got at the 5K race with a toothy grin, the director glances at a giant jar of change on her desk before she recounts how she met the subject of the photo. After the girl’s father told her he could not afford to pay the child’s registration fee for Girls on the Run, she brought a jar filled to the brim with loose change to school in hopes of using it to cover the fee.
Amy, holding the girl’s jar — still full of coins — proudly says that Girls on the Run never turns away a child for financial reasons.
“[Her dad] called us afterward to say what an impact Girls on the Run had made on his daughter,” Amy continues. “Those mornings, when he would get her up at 4:30 a.m. and she would have Girls on the Run, she would put on her Girls on the Run T-shirt, jump out of bed and say, ‘Dad, it’s a Girls on the Run day today!’ She would be ready to go.”
Giving girls that motivation is what drove Amy to establish the local chapter of Girls on the Run — an international nonprofit established in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina — along with fellow educator Kris Ohlson in 2009.
Amy has been enamored with Girls on the Run ever since she came across a pamphlet for the program while participating in a 5K run in Arizona in 2004. The educator was drawn to the nonprofit’s focus on empowering young girls, a subject she became passionate about herself while studying family therapy in grad school, she said.
“So often, both men and women are put into a box — ‘this is who you are, this is what you’re allowed to become and this is what your value is based on,’” Amy says. “To be fully who we are, we must be willing to step outside that box sometimes.”
She served as a run day volunteer for Girls on the Run in several states before she and her husband, Brian, moved to South Bend in 2009. After learning there was no local Girls on the Run council, Amy decided to work with Kris to get one off the ground. Two years of fundraising and organizing led to the formation of the first Girls on the Run team in South Bend in 2011, with Amy serving as a coach of the 12-girl group.
As of its latest season, which kicked off in March, Girls on the Run Michiana reaches 1,000 girls in five northern Indiana counties — Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph — and 50 schools.
While the 10-week program aimed at girls in third through fifth grade provides participants with the physical training they need to finish a 5K run/walk, coaches also use the activities to share life lessons with the children.
One activity, for example, is designed to help the children better deal with conflict. Coaches ask the girls to run around the track, where they stop at different points to collect their thoughts about a particular problem, such as a sibling taking their clothes without asking, before they share with the group how they would handle the problem.
In the middle of a conversation about the impact Girls on the Run has on children, Amy pulls out a stack of papers a recent group of girls had decorated, where each child had written down the main thing they learned from the program.
“I know how to be confident.”
“I know I can make a difference.”
“I know I am awesome.”
“I know not to bully.”
“The trajectory your life path can follow when you learn this in third, fourth or fifth grade has the potential to be drastically different,” she says.
Amy has seen the impact the program can have on young girls firsthand, recalling a memory from when she visited a team practice several years ago.
During an exercise where the team was asked to write down on a piece of poster board what made them beautiful, Amy noticed one girl — who the director surmised was the “queen bee” of the group — was writing down items like “nice clothes,” “nice hair” and “nice shoes.” Amy gently asked her, “Are these the things other people tell you are special about you?”
The girl, with tears in her eyes, confirmed Amy’s hunch. Then, with the older woman’s help, she began to cross off her list and replace her previous answers with phrases like, “I want people to know that I’m kind” or “I want people to know I care about my family.”
“When girls know who they are, and are able to speak up for themselves in a positive way, we all benefit,” Amy says. “It affects boys and men in a positive way when girls can know their worth and be confident in themselves.”
Despite her important role leading the Girls on the Run chapter, Amy is quick to point out she is just a small cog in the machine that powers the operation. In addition to the work her staff and the organization’s board of directors pour into the effort, it is the dedication of volunteer coach mentors — more than 300 as of this latest season, with hundreds more helping out on race day — and generosity of business and private donors that keep the nonprofit running at full speed, Amy says.
“A huge impact for me is seeing how generous people are with their time and support to make a difference for girls,” she says. “People give so generously because they also recognize the critical importance of what we are teaching girls. It’s just been a joy to work with so many amazing people and to get to know so many people in the community.”