Youth who participate in sports and regular physical activity experience physical, social, emotional, and cognitive health benefits that help to shape positive life experiences. But data shows that girls participate in sports 10 – 15% less than their male peers, and by age 14 girls drop out of sports programs at twice the rate of boys. There is concern that this gap is increasing in part because, while girls already face unique social pressures, they are also dealing with higher levels of stress and anxiety. Limited opportunities for physical activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the problem.

Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan, which is a local chapter of Girls on the Run International works to decrease that participation gap while helping girls gain confidence, build character, and develop healthy relationships. The program utilizes a social and emotional learning curriculum that intertwines physical activity with life lessons such as identifying what matters to you, how to choose friends, how to support others, and how to participate in and be of service to your community. Since its founding in 2001, Girls on the Run of Southeastern Michigan has grown from serving 90 girls at 2 locations in Ann Arbor to engaging a couple thousand girls at 100 sites across five counties each year. 

“The program gives young girls a safe place to meet and provides lessons that encourage them to use their voices, raise their hands, and develop friendships.”

Executive Director, Danielle Plunkett

Earlier in her career, Danielle worked with women who had experienced violent assault, and was drawn to the Girls on the Run program because of its preventative approach. The program is designed to help girls build confidence and connections so that they can be more successful moving into middle and high school and beyond. A recent independent survey of program participants nationally found that it does that successfully. 97% of those surveyed said they learned critical life skills in the program, and 85% improved in confidence, competence, caring, character, and connection to others.  

Over the course of Girls on the Run’s 10 week program, participants gradually build strength and confidence. The program culminates in a 5k run. For Danielle, it’s a powerful and celebratory event that brings the girls, their families, and the coaches together. She shares about a girl who participated in the program but wasn’t interested in running. She’d walk or skip laps or make excuses to leave. But when she finally got to the 5k, something clicked for her. She put in tremendous effort to run the entire time, and after the run, she was beaming with pride.

Girls on the Run invites families to train and run the event with their girls, and about 30% of families choose to participate. Often it’s the first 5k run for family members, and usually they lag behind the girls during the run. For Danielle, “it’s heartwarming to see girls complete the race, and then run back to cheer on their families.” 

Girls on the Run of Southeast Michigan provides a supportive community in an era of increased isolation, especially with the pandemic. Over the past nearly 20 years, Danielle has had the honor of seeing multiple women who participated in their programming as girls come back to coach and teach. Having participants come full circle further validates that the program works for Danielle.

At the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and Project Play, we strive to lift up the impactful work of our grantees who are creating positive permanent change in people’s lives throughout southeast Michigan. This post is part of a series of profiles about our youth sports grantees.

Project Play: Southeast Michigan is driven and funded by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s Youth Sports & Recreation focus area in partnership with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.