When Lilia Grundy and Denise Wilson first heard about the Girls on the Run (GOTR) organization, they assumed it primarily helped young females become better runners. After familiarizing themselves with what GOTR had to offer, however, they discovered it’s more than just a running program — much more.
That’s why the two Washougal women were passionate about bringing GOTR to Washougal for the first time this spring. They accomplished their goal with some help from Columbia River Gorge Elementary School Principal Tracey MacLachlan, the Columbia River Gorge school’s booster club and several community members.
Now, Grundy and Wilson are coaching two GOTR teams that will participate on May 21, in the Portland Metro Girls on the Run 5K at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview, Oregon. The teams began their twice-weekly practices on Tuesday, March 22, at Columbia Gorge Elementary School.
“I get emotional to see our community come together in a time where there’s so many challenges,” Grundy said. “It’s what I was hoping to create. The first practice was a sign of good things to come, and we’re only going to get better. I think it’s going to be an amazing community-builder for us all.”
Nineteen Washougal third-, fourth- and fifth-graders turned out for the program, representing each of the Washougal School District’s four elementary schools.
“Because we’ve never launched in Washougal before, (we wondered if there) would even be interest. That would be something that we’d have to gauge as we went along. It was all kind of a mystery,” Grundy said. “The biggest goal was to at least achieve one team — there had to be at least eight girls for a team. We were amazed when we saw the registrations coming in. Now we’re at 19 girls. That exceeded our expectations.”
GOTR is a Charlotte, North Carolina-based nonprofit that offers programming designed to strengthen girls’ social, emotional, physical and behavioral skills and ability to successfully navigate life experiences. The program accepts girls in third through eighth grades. Local chapters operate under the umbrella organization, which provides the curricula, training and support needed to successfully implement GOTR within local communities, according to the organization’s website.
The Washougal teams are part of GOTR Greater Oregon, which formed in January 2022 after the Portland Metro, Willamette Valley and Central Oregon GOTR councils merged.
“We’re changing lives,” Grundy said. “The magnitude of this program can be quite big. To think about it that way, it’s like, ‘Wow. We want to take this on responsibly. This is a big honor.’ I certainly feel that privilege, to be able to coach these girls.”
GOTR inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident by using a “fun, experience-based” curriculum that blends physical activity with social-emotional skill development, according to the website.
“We have girls participating from all four schools, so they can make new friends and form bonds that will last them for a long time,” Wilson said. “I can tell the girls are having a lot of fun making new friends, and even with the friends that they do (already) have, this is something that they can share and do together. I think the friendship piece is a big thing for them right now. Forming new bonds is important to them.”
The program is designed to be a “safe space” for the girls, Wilson explained.
“When I coached in Chicago, during one of the practices, a girl came in and looked really distraught,” Wilson said. “We sat in a circle, and she raised her hand and said, ‘A person in my class was bothering me today and making me feel sad. What should I do?’ At that moment it was like, ‘OK, let’s not do what the lesson says.’ As a team we talked to her about what she should do to take care of herself and stand up for herself. She felt safe. I really hope the girls feel the same way this season, that we’re all in this together and that we’re all friends and teammates, and we’re all helping each other out.”
Grundy learned about GOTR several years ago through her position as the director of graduate recruitment and corporate sponsorship for the University of Portland’s Pamplin Business School.
“A few years ago, one of our alumni, Sarah Shaw-Dixon, announced to us that she had just become program director for the Girls on the Run Portland metro area (council), and that piqued my interest,” Grundy said. “She informed me a little bit about what they do and their mission, and I just completely fell in love with it. I knew at that instant that I had to get involved.
“Fast forward a couple of years later, the pandemic comes, and everything comes to a halt. But as things started to open up, I reached back out to Sarah and said, ‘Hey, about this thing. Even though it’s an Oregon program, am I able to launch something out where I live?’ She said, ‘Absolutely. We have some chapters that we can open up in southwest Washington.’ I knew that my twin daughters’ school (would be) very supportive. I love principal Tracey MacLachlan, and I knew that (GOTR) was something that I wanted to pitch to her.”
Wilson first learned about GOTR about 10 years ago when she was teaching at a private school in Chicago.
“I coached there for a few seasons,” she said. “I loved the mission, and I saw the impact that it had on the girls and the community. I ended up running two marathons raising money for it because I loved it so much.
“I moved out to Washougal in 2017, and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if there are any Girls on the Run programs out there that I could potentially coach?’ I saw there was one in Camas, but my schedule didn’t quite work out with that. I noticed there weren’t any (teams) in Washougal, and I thought, ‘There needs to be one.’ I approached Tracey MacLachlan at Columbia River Gorge and asked if she’d be interested in bringing it to her school, and she was. And here we are.”
Grundy and Wilson are hoping to not only bring the program back to Washougal in future years, but also to expand it and reach other Washougal girls.
“I’m really hoping that this continues,” Wilson said. “I’d love to maybe start a site at a different school and make it maybe a little more accessible for more girls who want to do it and families who can’t find transportation (to Columbia River Gorge). But for now I’m focused on (this season) and having fun, and we are having so much fun.”