Some of the 1,700 girls entered in the annual Girls on the Run 5K Run/Walk pass the starting line in 2012.
Alexandra Ossola/Commons file photo
Some of the 1,700 girls entered in the annual Girls on the Run 5K Run/Walk pass the starting line in 2012.

Joy factory

Vermont’s chapter of Girls on the Run celebrates 25 years of cultivating young hearts, minds, and spirits

BRATTLEBORO-In 1999, when her daughters were young, Nancy Heydinger says she "wanted to find a way to ensure that they would grow up loving themselves, feeling complete."

"I wanted them to celebrate and embrace their natural gifts, to know that what they communicated was of value, and to believe that they could make an important impact in their communities and in our world," the Vernon resident told The Commons.

So Heydinger looked at opportunities for her daughters and found that "there weren't a lot of opportunities for girls that were solely for girls."

That was the impetus for her founding Girls on the Run Vermont (GOTRVT) that year.

Since the Vermont chapter began in 1999, more than 30,000 girls in the Green Mountain State have participated.

Girls on the Run was originally founded by Molly Barker in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996, and since then more than 2.5 million girls have taken part nationwide in a full life-lessons curricula for girls that includes cultivating a love of movement.

Barker recognized a need for girls to have their own spaces, noting that there were already plenty of spaces for men and boys.

She wanted to change that. She hoped to help girls find their voices and encourage them to lift one another up rather than compete.

In 1999, the first team of 15 girls was at Vernon Elementary School and included Heydinger's two daughters, Katy and Caroline, who are now 35 and 33.

From there, GOTRVT spread throughout Windham County and kept growing until it covered the entire state of Vermont. This year, there are teams at almost every school in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

"I've been lucky to have seen the transformation of the lives of girls all around the state," Heydinger said. "I have drawers full of letters from girls and their parents, guardians, and grandparents telling me how the program has changed lives."

She said that her "heart is full of memories of seeing the beaming faces of girls as they ran, walked, or skipped across the finish line at the end-of-season GOTR 5K."

Appreciation of movement

Girls on the Run operates for 10 weeks beginning every March, and meets after school twice a week for 90 minutes. The curriculum is designed so that each lesson is self-contained but builds on previous ones.

Lessons are on topics such as positive self-talk, where students learn to switch from negative to positive thinking, as well as managing emotions and navigating friendships.

"One reason GOTR is so successful is the curriculum. It keeps evolving to address issues of the day," says Heydinger.

"The physical piece of the program is so important - to get these girls out there and get them moving," she said. "The idea is not to turn them into track stars, but to help them gain appreciation of movement."

Heydinger adds that "movement activities" include "various forms of fitness, like running, doing laps, walking, skipping, while learning about [important life lessons]."

As Dummerston coach Elizabeth Catlin says, "One of the concepts is 'star power' - your inner essence, your inner light - and learning things that you can do to activate it or things you do to dim it and cover it up."

GOTR hosts two 5K runs each year, in Essex and Manchester. The Essex 5K will take place on Saturday, June 1, at the Champlain Valley Exposition and is open to public participation. The Manchester 5K will be held at Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park on Saturday, June 8, and public spectators are welcome.

Both 5Ks have a sponsor village that includes activities, games, and giveaways, as well as musical entertainment with a DJ and an emcee.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy endorsed Girls on the Run in his May 2023 report, calling it "an activity-based program that nurtures the mental well-being of youth."

The report, "Physical Activity: An Untapped Resource to Address Our Nation's Mental Health Crisis among Children and Adolescents" went on to say that "girls who were the least active when they started the program increased their overall physical activity by 40%."

It also noted that "97% of girls said that they learned critical life skills, including resolving conflict, helping others, or making intentional decisions, and 85% reported improvements in confidence, caring, competence, character development, or connection to others."

Raising money to keep GOTRVT accessible

For its 25th anniversary, GOTRVT has started an alumni scholarship award in honor of Rick Hashagen, who retired from the board of directors last year after 20 years.

"We awarded two girls' scholarships of $1,000 each to help fund their future education, and this year we're giving out two scholarships of $2,500 each, renewable for up to 3 years and up to $10,000," said Rachel Desautels, GOTRVT's current executive director.

"The volunteer coaches are a big part of the success of GOTR," she said. They undergo a background check and are trained in person before they begin coaching. The coaches don't have to pay for anything since all materials are provided by GOTR.

The cost of participation in GOTRVT is $130 per person, but Desautels noted that this fee is partially subsidized by the organization and that "the true cost per girl is closer to approximately $325."

Even so, Desautels said, no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Moreover, she said, GOTRVT is "an inclusive program that welcomes nonbinary, transgender, and gender-fluid participants to join."

At each practice, volunteer GOTRVT coaches "encourage and inspire participants to live fearlessly and realize their limitless potential. Coaches' willingness to listen and be present reminds participants that they, and their words, are worthy," according to the organization's website.

For this special anniversary year, Heydinger has returned to the organization, serving as a co-coach at the Dummerston School with Elizabeth Catlin, a GOTR board member who has been coaching for 13 years.

"I feel incredibly fortunate to once again experience the gifts that this program brings to the girls, watching them experience sheer joy as they run together, learn together, and support each other while practicing tools that will help them grow up to be confident, courageous, and strong independent thinkers and leaders," said Heydinger.

Building community

Each season, GOTR teams complete a Community Impact Project to help their respective towns.

The project is determined by the girls through a series of lessons where they brainstorm ideas, discuss the possibilities, compromise, and determine a final idea to implement during a lesson toward the end of the season.

Each season, the girls have the option to participate in the Scholarship Drive, a peer-to-peer fundraiser.

Wendy Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the program and Dover School GOTRVT volunteer coach, wrote in an email to The Commons, "Our girls really love the program and thrive. So much growth - it is amazing to watch."

This year, the team's community impact project was to create a little free library at Dover School.

"It all came together effortlessly," Johnson said. "A coach's partner built the box, the girls painted, donated books, announced at all-school sing (which brought in more books), wrote the directions, reached out to the local paper ... they couldn't have been more in charge of this project."

She said that many of the girls "want to be able to participate to give back to this program so that others can join in future seasons," Desautels said.

"They can collect funds either online [or in] cash or checks, but they are not to go door to door soliciting to those they do not know, to protect their safety," she added.

"Last year, the girls raised $195,000 for GOTR, which is remarkable," Desautels continued. "The girls understand the value of giving back to their community and are excited to utilize the skills they've learned during lessons."

From coach to director

In 2019, Heydinger decided it was time to retire. She stayed on for a few months to help with the transition after helping select Desautels as the new executive director.

Desautels loved having her own daughter in GOTRVT. "I had the privilege to be a coach at Williston for five years and I had the luxury of coaching my daughter for two of those seasons," she said. "It was such a joy to experience that with my kiddo and watch her blossom."

Desautels said that 1,800 participated in GOTRVT last year, and this year will likely see a similar number. There are 183 from Windham County alone, which Desautels says "represents the third highest participant count of all 14 counties this season."

Pre-pandemic, the numbers were a bit higher, and GOTRVT has learned lessons from Covid.

"We had to cancel our programs in 2020, which was heartbreaking. We came back in 2021, and it looked different," said Desautels.

She added that "2022 was the first year we came back with our pre-pandemic model, where everything was in-person again."

'It's a joy factory'

Elizabeth Catlin said that working with GOTRVT has been a big part of her life over the past 15 years.

"At Dummerston School, the support of the school community and the administration has been unwavering and the support of families has been so wonderful," she said. "I feel such privilege every year to meet the girls on the field."

Catlin got involved after her eldest daughter, Lila, took part in the program as a third grader. She soon realized that she wanted to be involved, so she began volunteering in 2010.

"I found it to be such a deeply connected and satisfying means of living my feminist values," she said.

She recounted what she described as "our family's Chariots of Fire moment."

"My daughter Lila was so determined and committed to running that 5K on her little legs," she said. "My husband, Jared, and I were on the finish line when she burst into tears and was overwhelmed."

"The energy at those 5Ks is infectious," Catlin added. "It's a joy factory. It brings out the best, with the coaches and volunteers - there is so much positivity."

Catlin's younger daughter, Lucy, also took part in GOTRVT.

"Lucy was moving toward becoming a mean girl in elementary school, but in GOTR she was paired with different people and she developed more emotionally, and now she's the nicest person on the planet!" her mother said.

Catlin said she loves that the program is for girls from third to fifth grade, "before the social stuff becomes really intense. There is a companion program called Heart and Sole for sixth through eighth graders."

Catlin reflects on the need to recruit good coaches for this program. "The chance to be a GOTRVT coach makes such a tremendous difference in your life. The curriculum - you're learning alongside the girls - is very powerful."

"I'm so grateful to Nancy Heydinger for bringing [GOTR] to Vermont," Catlin added, calling her "a visionary [who] changed things for girls in our state."

"It's an extraordinary thing," she said.

Girls on the Run Vermont is looking for coaches and new board members from Windham County. Contact Rachel Desautels at [email protected], or 802-871-5664. For more information on Girls on the Run Vermont, visit

This News item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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