Jill Henwood: Girls on the Run founder
Jill Henwood has been known to churn out a few good ideas when she’s running. A decade ago while running with some friends, Henwood broached the idea of starting a local chapter of Girls on the Run. The nonprofit, after-school program that encourages running and promotes self-respect has been hustling along ever since.
Organizers, many of them Henwood’s friends, expected 40 girls to show up to the first meeting. They were stunned to get 80. Fast forward to today and 1,700 girls between fifth and eighth grades — with the help of 300 volunteers and coaches — are enrolled in the program that teaches girls to value themselves and each other through meeting physical goals.
“The program is such that once you get it started you can’t slow it down,” Henwood said. “Running is just one aspect of it. The thing about running is, it’s something everyone can do, and for some, it’s walking.”
Henwood started the local chapter in 2000, three years after the national group was established in North Carolina. Numbers have soared and the Grand Valley chapter boasts one of the largest memberships in the nation, beating out council sizes in New York and Los Angeles, Henwood said. The program is expected to expand next year to include other counties around the Western Slope.
Girls practice running after school, and workouts are followed with healthy snacks and talks from coaches about issues such as resisting peer pressure and maintaining positive body images. The 10-week sessions wrap up with a 5K run and walk — the next run in Grand Junction is scheduled for May 1.
Practices are never about competition, they’re about individual girls “trying to meet their goal for that day,” Henwood said. “The things we discuss — peer pressure, nutrition — these are issues we all face.”
Henwood said she never considered herself to be very athletic, although she ran in high school and college.
“You give me a ball and I’m just horrible,” she said.
Henwood realized other girls were probably in the same boat. She also remembers a time when she tended to rate males on a different level or “instinctively giving them more credit than women,” she said.
She’s since moved beyond that thinking and later delved into research that showed positive sports development can transfer into positive life skills.
Henwood’s biggest goal is to keep the program affordable for girls. That’s possible in large part through community donations. Girls pay $40 per 10-week session, although the actual cost is $100. And no girls are turned away if the $40 cost is too much, thanks to a scholarship program.
Many of the girls in the program do not participate in other extracurricular activities. Henwood remembers a girl who complained every day about running, but still showed up and ran for three years. Some girls don’t believe they can finish the race, though each and every one has. Some coaches have finished their first 5K race alongside the girls.
Henwood won’t forget the reaction she received once when she announced her mother would be coaching a class.
“A girl said, ‘Isn’t your mom too old to run?’ ” Henwood recalled.
Henwood said she explained that her mother ran marathons and finished second in her age group during a recent race.
“I will never think that again!” Henwood remembered the girl exclaiming.
As executive director of the program, Henwood largely has passed on the coaching duties to volunteers and coaches. She currently lives in Olathe with her family of three girls, ages 5 to 10. She coaches girls in the program at Olathe Middle School.
Henwood keeps pressing forward to expand the program and dreams of bringing First Lady Michelle Obama to the area to highlight Girls on the Run.
“You’ve got to teach that they can be smart consumers and to do what’s best for their bodies and their minds,” she said of the program. “We feel like it’s a positive way to make a decision in a fun and healthy way.”