by Megan Stacey
It’s about so much more than running.
The Girls Gotta Run Foundation offers about 100 young ladies the chance to form a community, to exercise and share meals among friends, to get a quality education, and to build the foundation for a better life.
Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia funds these athletic scholarships for five students in Sodo through Girls Gotta Run, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2016.
“It’s right up our alley,” said Barb Reid, a retired school principal who chairs Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia’s education advisory committee and board of directors. “It’s setting them up, definitely, for success.”
Girls Gotta Run is about reaching out to young women at a time of transition when many drop out of school, usually between Grade 5 and 8. At that age many girls are pressured to get married or work to support their families.
“They didn’t have any access to family planning information or health care facilities and were at a high risk of dying during childbirth. They really weren’t able to access the tools they need[ed] to build economic resilience or sustainability in their family,” said Girls Gotta Run executive director Kayla Nolan.
“So we decided to hone in on that age to help girls build a better tool set so they can reach their goals.”
The three-year athletic scholarship includes transportation to school, uniforms and running gear, medical care for the student and her mother, team lessons, practices, and coaching, plus healthy snacks and meals.
“We use athletics to create that safe environment, where girls can talk to each other about issues they may be facing and form a peer support network,” Kayla said.
Ultimately, it’s a “listening organization,” she added.
“As we became more in tune with what challenges the girls were specifically facing in rural areas and also in the city, we adapted our structure to address those needs,” she explained.
Part of that adjustment led to including the families of the girls in the program, including entrepreneurial training and a group savings plan for their mothers.
“A lot of women don’t have the space to be able to talk about financial issues or learn how to manage money,” Kayla said. “It’s been really inspiring to see the moms get excited about that.”
Each woman contributes 2 birr (about ten cents) per week to a communal pot that they can draw from to enrich their businesses – everything from spice grinding to selling shoes to making injera.
“They invest in each other and then return those loans,” Kayla explained. The funds allowed one woman to hire an employee to help with her labour-intensive baskets, and another family was able to open a small shop in which to sell their traditional, homemade alcohol.
“Not only are you keeping a girl in school, but you’re helping her family,” said Barb.
Thanks to Girls Gotta Run, young Ethiopian women have gone to post-secondary school or job training, many embarking upon their dream careers and some even competing on the international running scene.
And though most of the girls are more interested in running as a recreational activity, that central tenet of the program is key to its success.
“There’s a lot of need in Ethiopia and there’s a lot of ways to invest and contribute to communities, but it’s exciting to use something that’s a source of pride for Ethiopians, like running,” Kayla said.
“It’s more dignified and speaks to the community in a way that is respectful and meaningful, and a way they can feel part of the programming we’re working on.”
Kayla said it’s validating to know that many of the girls would have left school if it weren’t for the program.
It pulls on Barb’s heartstrings, too.
“To continue their education, that’s the key. To me, with my background, without an education you don’t have much hope of anything,” she said. Barb’s elated to know the girls in this program will have a strong education in their tool belt.
And the best part is that the scholarships are an investment, not a handout.
“They’ve got to be the ones who do the work, but if we can just help with providing the money so they get the education, they’ll go on to hopefully improve the lives of more Ethiopians,” Barb said.
Kayla sees that ripple effect.
The girls avoid early marriage and tend to have their children later in life. Their parents often report a physical transformation as the girls get stronger, mentally and physically, and have access to lots of fresh air and healthy food.
And the Girls Gotta Run participants pay it forward.
“Women and girls have been shown to invest largely back into their own families and community. It’s the best investment you can make,” Kayla said. “And it’s exciting to be able to provide an opportunity for people to invest in a way that’s going to have a really long-lasting impact, not just a one-time donation.”
For Barb, it’s about sharing the value of childhood education – no matter where you live.
“By providing them with an education, we’re providing them a future.”
Photos courtesy of Girls Gotta Run Foundation, Inc.