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Girls on the Run founder: Running is a ‘sanctuary,’ and so much more

Molly Barker knows the struggle that young women can go through as they look to find themselves.

It’s one that starts in childhood, she told a packed dining room of mostly moms earlier this month at the Twentieth Century Club on Delaware Avenue.

Barker founded the Girls on the Run program in 1996 in Charlotte, N.C., and was in Buffalo to give a pep talk to leaders and supporters of the Buffalo chapter, and help raise money for after-school efforts in Western New York to use running as a springboard to growth, maturity and a stronger identity.

A child of the 1970s, Barker said she discovered in her 30s that running can put someone in a place where they can begin to gain perspective and redefine themselves.

“Running was more than a cardiovascular thing,” she concluded at the time. “It was a sanctuary.”

The question then became: Why wait to embrace running and all it can do until you’ve pushed into adulthood?

“It’s hard being yourself if you’re 8. It’s hard being yourself if you’re 54,” she said to the din of silverware on plates filled with salad and fresh fruits.

Barker, who believed she was “invisible” during her youth and younger adulthood, encouraged her audience to continue to support a nonprofit program that serves hundreds of girls in grades three to five and six to eight in Western New York.

Here’s how she explained Girls on the Run:

“The first third of the program is helping the girls really identify their values,” she said. “The second third is all about team building” – listening, being a good friend and learning not everybody will like them. “I didn’t figure that (last part) out till I was 50,” she joked.

The last third of the program involves a community service project. Barker said she’s heard a variety of thoughtful suggestions over the years, “from ban handguns to world peace.”

“I’m like, ‘Ladies, those are really awesome but we’ve only got an hour. Bring it down a little.’ ”

She told a story of girls visiting a retirement community with cards they made. One of the more colorful was from an 8-year-old who drew an angel and the wrote the words, “May you rest in peace.”

“Of course, we took that card” on the visit, Barker said, “and of course, the right lady got it.”

The program stresses healthy decision-making – and running – throughout.

Programs are offered across the Buffalo region in the fall and spring. They end with a regionwide 5K that also is open to the general public.

Find out more about the organization at You also can use the website to register for the upcoming spring run, which starts at 9:30 a.m. June 7 on the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst.

More than 55,000 volunteers help to run Girls on the Run programs in more than 200 communities across the U.S. and Canada.

Katie Joyce and Meghan Cavanaugh started the Girls on the Run Buffalo Council four years ago.

“As we grew, so did the need,” said Joyce, council director, during the fundraising luncheon.

Almost half the girls who participate in programs across Western New York receive some financial assistance, she said, and programs in 35 schools are fully funded by the council foundation, which has raised more than $230,000 in four years.

Providing financial help for those who need it, Joyce said, “is only going to make our community stronger.”