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Budd Bailey’s Running: Program for girls blossoms nationally

There are a million reasons why the Girls on the Run program (GOTR) has been so successful throughout the country over the past 19 years. That’s one for every young girl that has gone through it.

Several hundred of them will gather Sunday at the University at Buffalo’s North campus for the organization’s annual summer 5-kilometer race.

It all makes Molly Barker, the program’s founder, smile broadly. She’s something like the George Washington of GOTR.

“But I’m still alive,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t even know what ‘founder’ means. Really, to them it’s a dead person. I reference myself as the inventor of Girls on the Run.”

Barker – who recently came to Buffalo from North Carolina to promote the program – has told the story of the program’s creation dozens and dozens of times, but it doesn’t get old to her.

“The story changes a little bit as I get older, because the perspective changes,” she said. “I started running with my mother when I was 14. ... I discovered a space that was more sanctuary than competitive. I eliminated some of those negative messages that you get as a young teen as I figured this out. I found this space as I ran. I thought at the time, wouldn’t it be great to provide this to girls at an even younger age so they could perhaps tap into that?”

However, Barker developed other problems. The Charlotte-area resident started drinking as a teen, and was an alcoholic by the time she had become an accomplished athlete by her late 20s.

“I finally hit bottom at age 33,” she said. “I realized that I’d like to do something for girls so I could avoid some of those pitfalls. I started Girls on the Run in 1996, and it’s been amazing.”

The idea was to have coaches work with girls from third to eighth grade and teach them some life skills that included running. Barker had done some research into what was needed, and thought she could keep it as a small hobby of sorts. But the concept soon proved wildly popular.

“Everyone started to like it,” she said. “I eventually realized that we had done something that was phenomenal.”

The program was restricted to Charlotte for almost two years, until Runner’s World magazine published a short article. Barker received 200 calls about the program from around the country. GOTR was in five cities by the end of the year, and continued to grow rapidly. The total is now at 225.

There have been multiple times when Barker says to herself, “What have I done?”

“I think it was about 2000 or 2001,” she remembered. “New Balance had come on as a title sponsor. ... I remember sitting at a table with their representative, and the table turned a bit. They had come to us looking for influence, and I realized that we could do something for New Balance. I remember thinking, this is really starting to be something. That when I realized I needed to bring in some other people that could nurture business relationships.”

Barker recently changed her role with the organization. She retired from the business end and moved into what she calls “that iconic founder role.”

“When I started, my son was 9 months old,” Barker said. “He’s now 19. It’s weird. I can look at him and say, ‘When he was this tall we were’ ” at a certain point in growth, “‘and now he’s this tall and we’re here.’

“It’s funny to hear a 9-year-old say that Girls on the Run changed her life, but it did. When you’re 9, that’s how long you’ve lived.”

She points out another unexpected benefit. Several parents have taken up running just to be with their daughters, and they’ve built up their own self-esteem or lost weight in the process.

“Those stories bring me to tears,” she said.

Barker has been paying attention to what’s happened here.

“Something that has been phenomenal has been the exponential growth in Buffalo,” Barker said. “We grow in other cities, but the numbers are amazing here. They have 1,200 kids in only a few years.

“The 5Ks are different. Kids are holding hands, they make tutus and capes for the race. We call that drinking the Kool-Aid. Once they run, they can’t help but love it.”

(Race calendar on Page B13)