Girls Gotta Run

Meet Yenealem!

Before Girls Gotta Run, Yenealem didn’t have many friends to count on.

After joining the program, that all changed. Not only did she build relationships and develop social skills, she created deep and meaningful friendships.

“Now, I have many best friends,” she said.

The life skills programming helped her learn about to talk with her peers how to share love with friends and community.

Yenealem saw a physical transformation, too.

Athletic activity used to leave her winded and tired. Now she can run sprints, through practices, and around the schoolyard.

“Before, I was very tired when I did a minute of sports. Now I can run for a very long time,” she said.

And the athletic scholarship that Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia provides makes it possible for Yenealem to get a good education. Her favourite subjects are physics and chemistry.

Before Girls Gotta Run, Yenealem’s mom was trying to support many children and pay tuition for her school-age siblings. It was getting to be too much. But thanks to the scholarship, Yenealem can continue to get a good education. Her mom hopes it will lead her daughter to “a higher place” in her future.

Before, I was very tired when I did a minute of sports. Now I can run for a very long time. - Yenealem

Special Report #2: Megan Stacey from Ethiopia

Originally appeard in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review on February 24, 2017.

The reaction from Girls Gotta Run athletic scholars when asked who wanted to go to college. The response from these young ladies was overwhelming and earned a huge round of applause from the room.

The reaction from Girls Gotta Run athletic scholars when asked who wanted to go to college. The response from these young ladies was overwhelming and earned a huge round of applause from the room.

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

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

Spotlight on... Girls Gotta Run Foundation

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.”

It’s setting them up... for success.
— Barb Reid, MWAHFE Education Advisory Committee

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.

Sodo, Ethiopia

Sodo, Ethiopia

“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.

GGRF Athletic Scholar Firehiwote and her new puppy at her home in Sodo, Ethiopia.

GGRF Athletic Scholar Firehiwote and her new puppy at her home in Sodo, Ethiopia.

Not only are you keeping a girl in school, but you’re helping her family.
— Barb Reid

“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.

Girls get ready to stretch out after practice in Sodo, Ethiopia.

Girls get ready to stretch out after practice in Sodo, Ethiopia.

“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 Nolan, Executive Director of GGRF

“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.