CASTLETON — The sun broke through on what started as a dark and rainy Saturday at Castleton University as both the runners participating in Girls on the Run Vermont and its local founder raced toward their finish lines.
Girls on the Run Vermont is reaching its 20th year in 2019 and facing a big change. Founder Nancy Heydinger will be stepping down as executive director of the nonprofit at the end of the year.
“It’s really been an honor. It’s given my life purpose to be be able to help girls know that they can be strong and know that their potential limitless. I’ve been able to forge strong friendships all over Vermont. I’ve learned so much,” she said.
Saturday wasn’t quite Heydinger’s last official event. Girls on the Run Vermont will have its annual Southern Vermont run next week in Brattleboro and Northern Vermont event at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction on June 1.
Heydinger, who is from Brattleboro said she may no longer be the leader of the organization, but she will continue to be involved as a volunteer.
“I’m excited that we’re going to be leaving the organization in really wonderful hands. We have a really strong staff and board and our new executive director is our current program manager, Rachel Desautels, and she’s just going to lead us into the future really well,” Heydinger added.
Karen Scolforo, president of Castleton University, and Heydinger offered encouraging words to the runners before they had a “dance party” warm-up. But while the group sang “Happy Birthday” to mark the 20th anniversary of Girls on the Run Vermont and Heydinger’s retirement was announced, the focus of the event stayed on the third through fifth-grade students who are part of the Girls on the Run teams and the sixth- through eighth-grades students who are part of the Heart and Soul teams.
The Vermont organization will have participation from about 150 schools in the state and had participation from about 40 schools with almost 600 girls running on Saturday at Castleton.
Before the big annual running events, the girls meet for twice-weekly 90-minute sessions with their coaches for 10 weeks.
“They’re learning life skills and we’re using running as the tool to teach life skills It’s really not a running program per se, running is used to teach these girls these life skills of self-confidence, self-awareness, standing up for themselves, making intentional choices and decisions for themselves, making friends,” Heydinger said.
Trooper Katrina Ducharme was at the Saturday event with four colleagues, Trooper Adria Pickin, Trooper Jacqueline June and Trooper Casey Cole.
“For girls to be able to look up to us, not just as law-enforcement officers but females is very powerful for us and we’re very excited to be part of that,” she said.
Ducharme said Girls on the Run was also a way to get to know local students in a way that goes beyond the usual role for law enforcement officers.
Gail Regan, an associate professor at Castleton University, has coached a team at Fair Haven Elementary School, “One thing I like about it is I get college students involved and this year I have the most college students ever. I have eight college students helping the team. The little girls love it because they look forward to the college students helping,” Regan said.
Regan’s Fair Haven team had 11 members this year which is fewer than they’ve had in the past.
Castleton University student Adrienne Toof said she enjoyed being part of Girls on the Run, which she did for the first time this year.
“I really like running and I think it’s really important to have the youth just run and exercise and have healthy habits. Start them young,” said Toof, who runs cross-country and skis at Castleton.
Since Heydinger founded Girls on the Run Vermont, 45,000 girls went through the program and more than 6,000 coaches have volunteered.
“I can’t believe that I got to be part of helping girls to grow up strong. It’s been the biggest gift of my life to part of impacting girls’ lives. And it only happens because of the volunteers and all of the support the businesses and the state give us,” she said.
Heydinger said the program also brings families together as parents and siblings run with the girls.
After her run, Ellie Whalen, 9, a student at Rutland Town Elementary School, said her favorite part was “that I got to run with you,” and pointed to her mother Sheryn Whalen.
“You want to know the best part for me,” Sheryn Whallen said. “She stopped and grabbed my hand at the finish line.”