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KU Medical Center occupational therapy students launch Girls On The Run program at Kansas City public charter school

November 03, 2017

By Greg Peters

Heldstab and Eckels
Ashleigh Heldstab and Krista Eckels

Two graduate students in the University of Kansas Department of Occupational Therapy Education are changing the lives of young women at a local elementary school in Kansas City's urban core - one footstep at a time.

Ashleigh Heldstab and Krista Eckels are the driving forces behind a new Girls On The Run (GOTR) chapter that began this fall at the Academy For Integrated Arts (AFIA) - a public charter school for grades pre-kindergarten through sixth founded in 2012. The mission of the school is to use the arts as a catalyst to nurture achievement, curiosity, learning and self-esteem.

GOTR, meanwhile, is a nationally recognized program empowering girls in grades three through eight to realize their inner strength and define life on their own terms. In addition to encouraging participants to get up and move to become healthier, volunteer coaches teach weekly lessons promoting positive emotional, social, mental and physical development.

"If there is one thing I hope the girls take away from the program it's that they are important individuals who have the power to make a difference," said Heldstab, who serves as the head coach.

Heldstab and Eckels, who are both third-year Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) students, initially became familiar with the school when they did fieldwork there together as part of the requirements for their degrees. It was during this time that the two saw several girls with passion, energy and potential who were a great fit.

Heldstab, who has always loved running and the confidence it inspires in her, caught the coaching bug last spring when she was a volunteer coach for another GOTR team. Not long after that, she and Eckels combined forces and began the process of starting a team of their own at AFIA as a way to show their support for the school.

"We are certain that this program will have a lasting impact on the girls in the areas of self-esteem, confidence, perseverance, and overall achievement," said Angela Blackwell, Ph.D., OTR/L, a clinical assistant professor in the KU Department of Occupational Therapy Education, who is also an occupational therapist at AFIA.

For their efforts, Heldstab and Eckels receive no course credit or compensation, just the affection and appreciation of the school and their team members. "We call this a passion project," Heldstab said. "It is something we wanted to give the school and these girls."

Blackwell explains that GOTR helps girls engage in varied and meaningful experiences that helps to maximize their potential. Occupational justice - as this concept is more commonly known in occupational therapy circles - is a core value of occupational therapists and helps individuals develop attributes such as self-regulation, self-identity and social skills, to name a few.

"GOTR uses running as a vehicle to expose girls to movement and healthy habits that encompass the body and mind," Eckels said. "There's a lesson for each practice that fosters self-confidence and kindness."

The first step in forming the team was getting the approval from the executive director and principal of AFIA. In order to fund the team, the coaches applied for a grant and staged a fundraiser, but ultimately they received enough money from GOTR KC to sponsor 12 team members this fall.

They also had to recruit volunteer coaches to support the team. Blackwell is one of their volunteers, along with Megan Mills, an assistant teacher at AFIA, who also participates in track and cross country at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

On Monday and Thursday afternoons, a group of seven girls meets with their coaches for practice outside the school on a paved area that doubles as a playground during school hours. Because spaces on the team were limited, organizers sought out applicants who were fully committed to the program. Participants are expected to be at practice on time and ready to participate. Each day, the energetic young women set a goal for what they hope to accomplish.

"Girls On The Run has been really helpful because the girls are able to see themselves as strong and powerful people," said Mills. "Seeing the excitement that they get when they beat their lap goal for the day or beat their total laps from the week prior is so empowering."

"Walk, skip, jump, it's all about beating your yesterday and finding motivation within yourself to keep moving toward your goal," Eckels said. "If a girl is challenged by running the entire way, we tell her, 'it's OK, just keep moving.'"

However, the program is not just about running as a way to get into better physical shape. The weekly life skills lessons encourage participants to engage in GOTR's core values, which include attributes such as embracing differences, finding strength in connectedness, joy, optimism and nurturing physical, emotional and spiritual health. These are messages that the coaches are beginning to see come to fruition in the behavior of their young charges.
"The girls can tell when someone on the team is having a hard time, and they give that girl the attention she needs," Eckels said. "Their leadership skills are growing immensely. They are willing to take the first step of action and to show others how to handle a situation."

"It's been so awesome to see how much the girls encourage one another when another one feels down or feels like they can't keep running," Mills added.

The highlight of the fall GOTR season will be Nov. 4 when teams from across the metro, including the seven-member squad from AFIA, gather at Children's Mercy Park for a 5K race that is touted by GOTR officials as the "largest girls' empowerment race in Kansas City." While the season-ending event will showcase the runners' athletic accomplishments, perhaps more important, it will be a chance for them to demonstrate how much they have grown as individuals.

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018