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By Scott Scanlon

Refresh Editor

Meghan Cavanaugh once helped fellow UB researchers study childhood obesity. In early 2010, she decided to put some of what she learned into practice, becoming a coach for the Girls on the Run in Buffalo project.

Today, she is program director for the local nonprofit effort, part of a national Girls on the Run program.

Volunteer coaches handle the teaching and inspiring in schools across the region. The cost is $150 for a 12-week, after-school session twice a week, and includes a T-shirt, snack, and participation in a Girls on the Run 5K race. Subsidies have been made available for more than one-quarter of the participating girls, thanks to donations.

Cavanaugh, 36, grew up in North Buffalo, and graduated from Holy Angels Academy and Xavier University. She spent time in Oregon before returning to Western New York about a dozen years ago as a social worker at the Leonard Epstein Childhood Weight Control Program at the University at Buffalo. She has three children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years old.

How is the program structured?

The first four weeks is learning about being an individual and what that means and how that feels. The next four weeks is being part of a team and what that means, and supporting your friends and cooperating with your friends. Then we move on to being part of a community and looking at your community, your environment, your home, and teaching girls to give back to a community.

How did things start locally?

It was in February 2010, with three schools: Nardin [Academy], City Honors and Tapestry [Charter School]. We had 43 girls. My friend Katie Joyce and I thought it would be a great program. We’re both runners and felt strongly this is something that would do very well in our community. This season, we have 990 girls and we’re in about 80 schools in eight counties in Western New York. We haven’t marketed our program once. All of this has been word of mouth.

Is there an age range for the girls?

The third- through fifth-graders are called Girls on the Run and the sixth- through eighth-graders we call Girls on Track. That’s a little bit different curriculum. They do some more mature material. They’ll talk about drugs and alcohol a little bit more, they’ll talk about relationships a little bit differently; they talk about time management, stress, anxiety, things that these little girls aren’t going to relate to as much. And then they do some of the same things.

What is a typical couple of weeks like?

The girls meet two days a week for about an hour and a half. The girls talk about different things, different life issues. … They might talk about bullying, they might talk about finding their voice, they might talk about self-esteem. [Recently, at Dodge Elementary in East Amherst], they’re talking about what it is to be part of a team and work with one another to get something accomplished.

We also incorporate fun, interactive games, get the girls moving, running, walking, doing whatever they can do. And we do increase their running throughout the 12 weeks. At the end of the program, we bring all of our schools together, all with “[adult] running buddies,” and they will run in the Girls on the Run 5K, presented by BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. (Go to gotrbuffalo.org to sign up for the race – the public is welcome – to volunteer for the program or make a donation.)

All of our fundraising goes back into our scholarship fund. That’s why we’re able to give $54,000 in scholarships. We sponsor schools, we buy sneakers. Independent Health and BlueCross BlueShield, if you have those member benefits, they will pay for 100 percent of the program, which is huge.

Run me through a typical hour-and-a-half session.

We train all the coaches, so everybody’s getting the same information. They change, they get their water bottles and they sit in a circle, and they discuss what the day’s topic is going to be. The coaches have a manual they can script through if they wanted to. There will be some discussion and then the coaches will say, ‘OK, let’s get up and do our cooperation activity. This week it was jump-roping. … Then they’ll come back together and they’ll talk about, ‘What did you learn working with your friends today?’ They process it. And we do incorporate a healthy snack. We give all the coaches a gift card to a grocery store. We encourage a fruit or vegetable at every practice.

In terms of athletics, what are you seeing the girls accomplish during the program?

We are seeing girls who have never run, ever, and they’re completing a 5K. … We have never had a girl not be able to complete our 5K, and that’s due in part to the coaching and the encouragement and telling people, ‘It’s OK if you walk. All you have to do is get through that finish line. And that’s why they have that buddy runner. We had a girl in a wheelchair and she did the 5K. It was the best.

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