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Girls on the Run of the High Country Pilots Inclusion Program to Recruit Girls with Disabilities

A young runner and her mentor pose for the camera after visiting the crazy hair station. Photos courtesy of Mary Sheryl Horine

By Sierra Bell and Daelyn Bentley-Gottel

This spring, Girls on the Run of the High Country (GOTR-HC) is the pilot site for a new inclusion program aimed at recruiting girls with motor, intellectual, and sensory disabilities. The after-school program for third-through-fifth-grade girls is founded on teaching participants about themselves, helping them figure out what they’re good at and what their values are, and inspiring an appreciation of what makes them special. While running is the means for getting the girls to focus and set goals, Mary Sheryl Horine, Associate Director for the Institute for Health and Human Services at Appalachian State and Director of GOTR-HC, says being inclusive no matter the activity is extremely important to GOTR-HC.

“It’s actually very simple to transform a running program to one that is open to everyone. [The National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability] has taken a look at the Girls on the Run curriculum and they’re helping to adapt it to be more inclusive for girls with motor disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and sensory disabilities,” Horine said. “[It] will be our standard policy of recruiting girls with disabilities to be included in the program.”

Horine also hopes that the success of the pilot program will not only impact organizations in the High Country but will spur national action.

“We hope this springboards recreation departments, YMCA’s, little league teams, etc., and opens people’s eyes [about] how they can adapt their programs to be more inclusive for people with disabilities.”

The GOTR-HC after-school program welcomes all girls from third-through-fifth-grade, including trans girls and girls with disabilities. This is part of GOTR’s mission to teach acceptance through cooperation, teamwork, and communication. The girls in the program get to meet other girls who may be different from them on the surface, but the activities and exercises they go through helps break down these perceived barriers.  

“As a group they focus on why they are together, what are their differences, what are their similarities, and at the end of the day they figure out that they’re all human and they’re all ten years old. And they work on how to stand up for each other.” Horine said.

As a pilot program for inclusion, Horine says part of the job is to make note of the challenges the program comes across as it tries to bring in more girls with different needs. One of the biggest challenges GOTR-HC is coming across is accessibility to outdoor spaces. Many of the public schools used as meeting places for the program do not have disability-friendly facilities, like hard-surface tracks or ramps alongside staircases, but Horine hopes that GOTR-HC will bring attention to these accessibility issues to show schools how to make changes to be more inclusive.

Making positive changes to the community is at the very core of the Girls on the Run Program. The program is designed around the idea that changing one girl’s life can inspire change in those who know her, in her classroom, in her school, in her community.

“One of the things I like the most about this program is that everybody benefits from it. Whether it’s the smartest, most athletic, privileged girl in the world, she takes away from this program and becomes a better person and learns life skills that will carry with her,” Horine said. “Likewise, someone who might struggle in school or has no inclination whatsoever to be on a sports team takes away a tremendous amount from this program as well. That’s what I truly love about this program. Everybody takes something from it; everybody can improve from this program.”

GOTR-HC extends their inclusivity to the local community as well. The culmination of the ten-week program is a huge 5K: a communal celebration of the girls and all they’ve accomplished.  

“It’s a fun community event and we encourage any community members to come and run in it. Everyone is welcome at the 5K. It’s a non-competitive, non-timed event; everyone wears a number one bib. We’re not encouraging people to sprint, we’re just encouraging them to finish. We say skip, hop, or walk: any forward motion is going to get you there.”

This year, the 5K is being held at the Greenway Trail on May 6th, at 2:00pm. It’s only $15 to register, and it’s very much a family-friendly High Country event. There’s lots of music, dancing, and even a crazy-hair station. Everything about the 5K is designed to be lighthearted, fun, and a celebration of the girls and everyone who makes up their community.

Becoming a part of the Girls on the Run of the High Country community doesn’t stop with participating in the 5K, either. For the first time, GOTR-HC is offering paid internship positions for college students as part of the brand new Camp GOTR being offered this summer as an alternative for girls who are too busy to participate in GOTR during the school year. GOTR-HC also offers volunteer positions for high school students and sponsorship opportunities for families and businesses. Getting involved with Girls on the Run of the High Country is quick, easy, and well worth the time and energy if it means improving the self-esteem and confidence of middle-school girls.

Two girls and their running buddies jog towards the finish line.


Two young girls grin while running at the annual Girls on the Run of the High Country 5k