Anna Henley is a studious 9-year-old who spends much of her free time reading and writing.
The fourth-grade bookworm consumes books on a Kindle Fire she got a couple years ago. Poems and stories flow out of her, and she's begun writing a book on her laptop.
"I've spent a lot of time on it," Anna said.
She hadn't expressed interest in athletics until about a year and a half ago. One day she brought home a flier about Girls on the Run, a program that trains girls to run a 5K race at the end of each 10-week session.
"I said, 'Do you really want to do this?'" recalled her mom, Amy Henley. "She said, "I could run. You don't have to go fast.'"
The program's emphasis on building confidence and self-esteem was a big part of why Anna wanted to try it. Along the way, she learned something new about herself.
"I found out that I liked running," she said. "Once we did the pacing lesson, I found a rhythm that I could run."
More than anything though, she enjoys the lessons about being positive during the twice-weekly training sessions at her school, Spalding Elementary in Meridian.
She's now in her second year of Girls on the Run - participating in both fall and spring sessions - and is playing basketball. She may one day run on a cross-country team.
"I've sort of noticed that I have a passion for running," she said. "I think that when I'm running, it keeps me happy."
Her 42-year-old mom also found a new hobby.
"I would never, ever, in my life have considered running. Now I just love it," said Amy Henley, who has run several 5Ks with her daughter. She's become one of the coaches for Girls on the Run.
A DOZEN YEARS IN THE VALLEY
Girls on the Run was founded by a recreational runner in Charlotte, N.C., in the early 1990s. It incorporated as a nonprofit in 2000. In 2001, the group got its start in the Treasure Valley.
Today, more than 120,500 girls in 200 cities in the U.S. and Canada participate.
"This is going to be our biggest season ever in the Treasure Valley," said local organizer Melissa Bixby, who estimated 300 to 350 girls would participate at 22 sites from Caldwell to Mountain Home. "Still, a lot of people don't know who we are."
The program is for girls in third, fourth and fifth grades.
"That's right where they're still receptive to messages from adults," Bixby said. "We give them a toolbox for the middle school and high school years."
Bixby, a paid staff member for Girls on the Run, trains parents, teachers and community members to be volunteer coaches.
Participants at each site are limited to about 20, and some have waiting lists.
Despite the name, there's no pressure to actually run. In fact, most girls do a mix of running and walking when they start. A few stick with walking throughout the program.
"We just want you to move forward," Bixby said at a recent session. "You can walk, hop, skip or jump."
In April, some will participate in the 5K Beat Coach Pete race at Boise State University - a "practice run" before East Junior High's Hornet Run on May 4.
"Many have never thought they could achieve that distance. ... What we want them to do is realize there's an athlete within everybody," Bixby said. "And if they work toward that goal, they can accomplish it."
TEACHING POSITIVE SELF-TALK
To keep it from being monotonous, games of all kinds are incorporated.
Girls in Anna's group were giddy as they stopped between laps around the school gym to write words and phrases on pieces of paper. They got high-fives from coaches and fellow runners as they finished a half hour of on-and-off running.
Afterward, they sat in a circle on the gym floor and listened intently as coach Kristin Burns talked to them about beauty - then asked them to give one example of something they find beautiful about themselves.
As an example, the 31-year-old coach, who has a baby daughter of her own, said: "I speak my mind."
One by one, the girls offered up answers:
"I'm good at basketball."
"I'm a great friend."
It was a lesson in positive and negative self-talk, Bixby said. Burns told the girls that when they feel down, they can think of what makes them beautiful.
Meridian mom Melissa Gerlach said her daughter McKinly, now 14, had such a good time with Girls on the Run that she continued running at the YMCA and in school cross-country and track.
"She kind of got her athleticism and love for running through the program," Gerlach said.
Her younger daughter, Ashten, 8, has followed in her sister's footsteps.
"She's extremely shy, and she's definitely blossomed," Gerlach said. "She's gained so much self-esteem."
Coach Burns says, "To coach, you have to feel like you have something to offer. I feel like I can teach these girls how to be proud of who they are, how to stand up for themselves and speak their minds."
Katy Moeller: 377-6413