CLEAN Offers New Program for Younger Girls

The area’s premiere teenager advocacy and education group held its annual board meeting last Thursday night. CLEAN’s board of directors said good-bye to departing executive director Katherine “Kat” Bronson but welcomed her recently selected replacement and also announced a new program designed to support self-image in younger girls through exercise and community involvement.

Created in 1986, Community and Law Enforcement Against Narcotics, Inc.   (CLEAN)   is a private non-profit  organization dedicated to teen education and advocacy and supports youth and families in the regional community of the City of Winchester, and the counties of Frederick and Clarke, Virginia.  CLEAN community programs are aimed at reducing both the demand for and the availability of alcohol tobacco and other drugs. The group also focuses on other adolescent problem behaviors including violence, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and supporting healthy activities and programs for families and children.

Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker speaks at CLEAN's annual business meeting - photo Edward Leonard

“Running CLEAN has been a really wonderful experience and I know that it will follow me for quite a while” Kat Bronson said at CLEAN’s annual business meeting which was hosted by Macintosh Farms in Clarke County, Virginia. Bronson is leaving CLEAN to join her husband who works in Bristol, Virginia.

“It’s hard to leave because CLEAN has been my heart and soul. But at the same time I’m really excited to see Niles Comer take over. It helps a lot that someone so capable will be running the organization. He has so much knowledge and zeal and I’m really looking forward to following what he does with CLEAN.”

Niles Comer, CLEAN’s new executive director, said that he felt honored to step into such a wonderful opportunity.

“I want to help kids have a great life because it’s awful not to have one” Comer said.

One of Comer’s new tools for helping area girls will be CLEAN’s affiliation with Girls on the Run (GOTR), a programs which combines training for a 5K running event with healthy living, education and self-image strengthening.

“Our programs instill self-esteem through health education, life skills development, mentoring relationships, and physical training – all of which are accomplished through an active collaboration with girls and their parents, schools, volunteers, staff, and the community” said GOTR founder Molly Barker who addressed the CLEAN’s annual business meeting Thursday night.

Barker held the CLEAN audience spell bound for nearly an hour as she told of her own personal journey of alcohol dependency, recovery and an epiphany that inspired her to found Girls on the Run.

Barker piloted an early version of a 12-week, 24-lesson GOTR curriculum with 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996. Since then the movement has seen explosive growth and today helps more than 140,000 3rd through 8th grade girls to “uncover their extraordinary potential, demonstrate courage, and generally embrace being ‘fantabulous.’”

“We are so much more than just our bodies and our jobs” Barker said. “We are each a brilliant idea sent to earth by God. Sometimes it takes a while for that idea to come through but as children we naturally connect with it. Girls on the Run trys to help girls capture the essence of that idea when they are still young and intuitively understand that they are already unique, perfect and don’t need to be anything else but themselves.”

But getting to the point of articulating the GOTR message was a long and painful process for Barker. While Girls On The Run has enjoyed a meteoric rise since its founding, its origins have roots in Barker’s own personal struggles with self-image and alcoholism. Barker says that she “hit bottom” as an alcoholic in 1993 when she was 32 years old.

“I remember calling my sister and telling her that I couldn’t go on anymore and that I was going to either move to California or, well, I just couldn’t go on living.”

“Well, California sucks so don’t do that” Barker’s sister replied. “But promise me that you’ll just go to bed and sleep on this and see how you feel in the morning.”

Molly took her sister’s advice and soon after, during a sunset run and after years of questioning her self-worth and being defined by others, Molly discovered the inspiration that grew into Girls on the Run.

“I just remember that day so clearly” Barker said. “Around the fifth mile I became very conscious of my body. I could feel the sweat on my face, the warmth of the sun and the wind blowing. In the series of about eight strides I reached a point where I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. Suddenly I was nothing and I knew that in that state of nothingness I was free to create myself in whatever form that I wanted.”

Molly first began running, and using alcohol, at the age of 15. She said that both behaviors were a response to finding herself stuck in what she describes as the “girl box”, a place where many girls enter in middle school as they begin to morph into what they think they should be rather than being who they really are.

Barker says that “girl box” messages can vary but the overarching theme comes from a culture rooted in the belief that girls and women must conform to a set of standards that are often unattainable and dangerous to their health and well-being.

“Girls hear a message that you just won’t ever be good enough” Barker said.

Barker told a story of her first experience with alcohol while getting drunk as a 15-year-old with another girl and then telephoning a boy who both girls were infatuated with but neither had actually ever met.

“He had no idea who I was” Barker said. “But I remember telling him that ‘I can be the person that you want me to be.’” Barker said that as she grew older she was continually haunted by a sense that she just wasn’t good enough.

But at age 32, and after years of seeking to drown her confusion and pain through alcohol, Barker entered alcohol addiction counseling and began to turn her life around. This year she is celebrating her 20th anniversary if sobriety.

It was as Barker struggled to come to terms with the sources of her own inner pain during the alcoholism recovery process that she began seeking to find a way to help girls thrive in a world that often sends conflicting messages like she, herself, had struggled with. Barker soon began formulating a solution that she tried with a 13 girl group at the small school where taught at the time.

The results from the initial GOTR session convinced Barker that she was on the right track. “I knew after the very first session with those 13 girls that this was what I needed to do with my life” Barker said.

GOTR, which sprang from Barker’s on distress, recovery and vision, is today offered in over 150 cities across North America and the program has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of girls and women. What once was a small program has growm in today’s volunteer-led program that weaves training for a 5K run with fun, experience-based lessons that improve self-awareness and builds positive experiences and inspire life-changing confidence through accomplishment.

The heart of the Girls on the Run program aims at giving pre-adolescent girls the necessary tools to embrace their individual strengths as they enter middle and high school.  Perhaps the program’s success is voiced best on the organization’s website, www.GirlsOnTheRun.org, through the words of its past and present participants.

“I used to be shy, but now I’m not anymore.” “I know that whatever I set my mind to do, I can do.”    “Girls on the Run helps me feel awesome about myself!”

Barker, who holds a masters degree in social work and is a four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, continues to play an active role in GTOR both as an evangelist for its values and through assisting in establishing new program affiliates across the country. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and continues to enjoy running, cycling and writing. Since creating Girls on the Run, Molly Barker has authored two books, ‘Girls on Track: A Parent’s Guide to Inspiring our Daughters to Achieve a Lifetime of Self-Esteem and Respect’, and ‘Girls Lit From Within’.

CLEAN volunteer Allison Major, who will run the GOTR program in the Winchester area, said that she believes Girls on the Run will have a major impact on young women in our area.

“I think that we look at the risk of teen pregnancy after girls have already formed their thoughts and self-image when it’s too late” Major said. “GOTR helps build positive self-worth and self-image and gives girls the tools to resist making bad decisions when they are younger and before it’s too late.”

CLEAN’s first Girls on the Run season will begin in the Fall of 2011 with one site at Virginia Avenue/Charlotte DeHart Elementary School and the other at Daniel Morgan Middle School. The program runs twice a week for 12 weeks after school.

Registration information will be available on the CLEAN website by June 1st. Please visit www.CleanInc.org for more information.