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Girls on the Run expanding in Western New York

A little more than two years ago, Katie Joyce was just starting to her efforts to establish a chapter of "Girls on the Run," a nonprofit organization designed to teach lessons on self-esteem and healthy living to girls ages 8 to 13.

So how is it going now?

"We are doing great," Joyce said.

That might be an understatement.

"The program has really grown," the Council Director of the organization added. "We have 560 girls this season alone. Before we were just in Erie County. Last summer we expanded to all eight counties of Western New York. We have spread ourselves all over. It's nice to get into rural areas, where there are not as many after-school programs. But we're still really strong in the city, and growing in the suburbs."

That's impressive for a effort that essentially started with one phone call by Joyce, as she contacted the national office in North Carolina. Joyce and friend Meghan Cavanaugh received a charter for Erie County. In relatively no time at all, this has become quite a success story.

Since 2010, Joyce has been busy spreading the word throughout Western New York about the merits of the program.

"Parents have seen the value of the program," she said. "I can't take credit for the curriculum. That's a national program. We talk about issues that girls face on a daily basis. It incorporates running, but we also talk about how to be a good friend, how to handle peer pressure.

"It's so great to see the parents' support. We do a lot of scholarships. We have some schools that are fully funded, so that the girls don't even pay. The parents are appreciative. They know that some schools don't offer many after-school activities."

Trying to get financial aid for any nonprofit program is never easy, particularly in this region where there are many groups in need. Joyce says her organization is getting better at the process.

"It was good for us to have a year under our belts for writing grants for foundations," she said. "We have success stories to present. We have a sound board, and a good financial plan. It's interesting -- we have not marketed to one school, and we have 50 sites this year alone. It's all by word of mouth."

The success of Girls on the Run locally was evident to anyone who attended the Lindsay's Legacy race in Tonawanda in November. In part because of their participation, the young runners have helped to make that event the biggest 5K run in Western New York (1,191 finishers last year).

"We hear the most from parents of those who haven't been involved in sports," Joyce said. "They say, 'My daughter is finally active in something.' They come back, talk about Girls on the Run, and they can't wait to get out there again. Those are the girls that get the most out of it.

"I coached last season at City Honors, and a lot of the girls went on to run cross-country. They make that connection to running. If they go on to other sports, that's all positive for everyone."

The participants' next chance to run that distance in a race will be Wednesday at Delaware Park, as the Girls on the Run of Buffalo 5K will be staged. It is open to everyone. In last year's inaugural race, 453 finished -- 319 were female.

"We keep growing. We're growing faster than other cities," Joyce said. "That was our plan from the start, but we're not growing faster than we can handle. There are still more schools for us to cover."


Race calendar

*Dirty Bit 4-Mile Trail Run, Holiday Valley Mountain Sports Center in Ellicottville, 10 a.m. today, 574-0888.

*Girls on the Run 5K, Delaware Park in Buffalo, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 645-6815.

*OLSH 5K, 3148 Abbott Road in Orchard Park, 6 p.m. Thursday, 445-5022.

*LK 5K, 68 East Main St. in Hamburg, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 870-7946.

*Mount Mercy Academy 5K, 88 Red Jacket Parkway in Buffalo, 6:30 p.m. Friday, 713-5654.

*St. Gregory the Great's Great Race, 5K, (News Runner of the Year Race), 200 St. Gregory Court in Williamsville, 7 p.m. Friday, 626-0106.

*Warm Up for Relay 5K, 491 High St. in Lockport, 9 a.m. Saturday, 478-4836.

*Red Devil Run for Recovery 5K, 9365 Clarence Center Rd. in Clarence Center, 9 a.m. Saturday, 634-9565.

*Woodlawn Beach Bridge 5K Run, 3281 Lakeshore Rd. in Blasdell, 9 a.m. Saturday, 864-5377.

*Ripley's Race to Wellness, 5K, 1 Park Ave. in Ripley, 9 a.m. Saturday, 736-2631 x240.

*Trooper Brinkerhoff 5K, Boston Town Park in Boston, 10 a.m. Saturday, 604-8949.

*Salmon Run, 5K, 57 Harbor St. in Wilson, 5 p.m. Saturday, 751-6120.

*Dash for Dad 5K, Delaware Park in Buffalo, 9 a.m. on June 17, 844-5500.