Girls on the Run Philadelphia filling void for youth sports

Two girls proudly stand at the finish line of the Girls on the Run 5K last fall after completing the race. Contributed photo.

As youth sports continue to be hampered by a global pandemic, the need for exercise and  interaction among children is considered to be at an all-time high.

Girls on the Run Philadelphia is hoping to fill that void locally.

Through physical activity and positive youth development, the organization is helping young females strengthen both mind and body through fun exercises and mentoring.

“I think it’s very important all the time,” said Heather Plastaras, program coordinator for Girls on the Run Philadelphia. “It’s even more important now since girls have been isolated and not forming the connections that are so important for this age group. It’s a time in life when these girls want to feel especially connected to their peers.”

Girls on the Run serves girls from third to eighth grades, providing an outlet for physical activities like running while emphasizing healthy mental aspects. Philadelphia’s chapter of Girls on the Run joined the national initiative in 2012 and has fall and spring programs throughout the city, including South Philadelphia.

The eight-week 2020 fall season is set to begin on Sept. 21. There are more than 100 sites citywide, including locations in Bella Vista, Point Breeze and Queen Village in South Philly. There are also citywide virtual sites for those who would prefer to take part via the internet.

“We have several teams that are going to be virtual to allow kids to participate from anywhere,” Plastaras said. “You can have girls from all over the city to come together. It’s pretty cool to be able to offer both the virtual team as well as the hyperlocal neighborhood teams that can meet in-person.”

Whether it’s through a computer screen, or through live instruction, girls will take part in activities that combine a physical task with a mental health theme — for example, a brisk run with a theme of gratitude. Girls will take part in a run and then discuss things in their life that they are grateful for.

Other exercise themes include positive talk, dealing with emotions and healthy relationships. Each team of girls is led by several coaches and after each activity, girls regroup and discuss things they learned. The physical activities are based on what each individual is comfortable doing. They will set goals throughout the program to hopefully heighten their physical abilities.

“It doesn’t have to be running,” Plastaras said. “It can be walking, skipping or cartwheeling. I’ve seen all different varieties of active motion. As you’re working out, there is some thinking and connecting to the lesson going on.”

Activities are compiled by well-trained coaches and staff who are experts in several fields. The program concludes with all participants completing a celebratory 5K event.

“Our staff and coaches are ready to bring critical social-emotional programming to Philadelphia’s girls at a time when they need it the most,” said Colleen Kelly Howard, executive director. “We have adapted based on the recommendations of local health officials and decisions of local governments and school districts. Our fluid model will work completely in person, completely virtual or can seamlessly transition between the two as needed.”

Registration for the season is available at This year, Girls on the Run Philadelphia will offer a flexible programming model to accommodate the changing and unpredictable school year due to the pandemic. If schools and sites are in session, afterschool programming will be delivered over usual with the addition of enhanced safety measures including physical distancing modifications. Should a school or site close for health reasons, the program will be transitioned to a virtual model, with lessons that mirror the in-person program.

Regardless, in a short time, girls will be on the run.

“Obviously, running is something easy to do in a distanced fashion,” Plastaras said. “From the get-go, it’s been one of the sports that’s been deemed the lowest risk (during the pandemic). The Health Department has said running is one of the things they will allow teams to do.”