Originally appeard in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review on February 24, 2017.
SODDO, ETHIOPIA - They’re going to be pilots, doctors, engineers and journalists.
The Girls Gotta Run Foundation is making real and lasting change in the lives of young women, their mothers, and their entire communities in two regions of Ethiopia.
Imagine walking 90 minutes to school - and 90 minutes back home again. Imagine being pulled out of school to be married off at age 14. Imagine dreaming about your future but knowing that education was unattainable.
These are normal, everyday challenges for many girls and teens in Ethiopia.
That’s where Girls Gotta Run comes in. The athletic scholarship program covers tuition, uniforms, health food after practice, and a whole lot of confidence building to boot.
“I see them as true leaders. It’s so powerful and humbling,” said executive director Kayla Nolan of the 55 students in the program.
Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia sponsors five strong, intelligent, compassionate and funny young ladies in the Soddo-based Girls Gotta Run (it’s also run in Bekoji, Ethiopia). For more information about this sponsorship, check out www.motherswithaheartforethiopia.com/girls-gotta-run.
The girls – about halfway through the three-year program – report physical, emotional and financial changes for the better since beginning Girls Gotta Run.
“I love a lot of things. The sport, exercise is good for me. The life skills are good – I know myself,” said Dagmarit Wolde Semayat, a 15-year-old student at Abba Pascal Girls School who likes math and physics and hopes to become a pilot one day.
Girls Gotta Run is just a few years old, but the program is already having a big impact. For Nolan, who doubles as the girls’ biggest cheerleader, it’s about so much more than just the ins and outs of their life skills lesson or running drills. Nolan and her staff take great care to build up these young women.
“We need to talk about girls in a way that’s respectful of their own capacity to manage those problems – because they’re expected to manage them. If we talk about them like they’re these powerless, small, infantile, young people, how do we expect them to simultaneously confront things like early marriage or poverty?” Nolan asked.
Another key to the program is the bonds of friendship. Most people remember what it was like to be 13, 14 or 15 years old – self-doubt is often a constant and it takes some time to find your place.
The situation is even more volatile for young women in developing countries where girls often don’t finish school and early marriage is common.
“Before I joined this group, I did not have any friends. I’ve got a lot of friends now – best friends,” said Yenealem Habtamu, a Grade 9 student.
It was a sentiment echoed many times over by the young runners.
“Friendships are a heartwarming thing, but it’s also a pretty good indicator that the program is working,” said Nolan.
Without a strong social support network, it can be hard for girls to speak out about problems.
“We want to provide peers, so that if there’s a situation they have friends they can go to, and not be isolated by themselves. It’s also a long-term gain when it comes to networks and opportunities,” she added.
The program is based on the idea of building up girls and women, not just for their own sake, but for the benefit of their families, communities and country.
“Before I didn’t get the chance to know about women’s potential. After I got into the program I realized that girls can do anything,” said Biruk Abraham, another sponsored athletic scholar.
It’s even convincing dads about the power of educating their daughters.
“I am not educated, and neither is her mother,” said Ersase Eligo, whose daughter Wubalem Ersase is in Girls Gotta Run. “I need my children to learn – for their success and also to help others.”
In the third year of the program, Girls Gotta Run involves the parents directly by running a savings group for mothers. Those workshops teach the basics of financial literacy and entrepreneurship.
Many families leverage this opportunity to develop their own small businesses – one mom expanded her basket-making endeavour and hired an employee. Another family opened a shop on their property.
This sort of investment can be the difference between maintaining the status quo and inspiring progress. One family was on the brink of pulling their daughter out of school when her athletic scholarship came through.
Girls Gotta Run is full of ripple effects. When girls are educated, they can share their knowledge with friends, younger siblings, and neighbours. When they’re empowered to become agents of change, they pay their opportunities forward to help others.
“I wish that she will finish her education,” said Mebzat Kuma when asked about her hopes for her 15-year-old daughter in the program.
“I wish for her the higher places. I hope that after she finishes she will help others.”
- Megan Stacey