Organized sports have been proven to be especially beneficial to youngsters, whose bodies are still growing and minds are still developing. They benefit not only from the competition and teamwork of sports, but the opportunity to get physically and mentally stronger. So as COVID-19 shut down group activities, the all-volunteer Girls on the Run didn't put away the sneakers.
"My name is Natalie Wasik. I'm in fourth grade and this was actually my first year doing Girls on the Run."
If the last name sounds familiar, it's because the Niagara County family has had some public tragedy, most recently the loss of "Uncle Frank" to COVID in December.
But Natalie has grown into what her coach describes as a "phenonemal" athlete, who helps out with the family farm, dances three times a week after school and is so good at golf, she'll be playing at the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, NC this July.
"It was really fun overall and you can meet a lot of new friends. That's one thing I really liked about it," Natalie said.
But Girls on the Run isn't just about sports.
"I did discover some things about myself. So like, when you do something that you don't really like doing, the clouds cover up your star power. And when you do things that you really like to do, your star power shines," Natalie said. "So when I have a bad day, I think about my star power and then I just do what I love. Because, I mean, I try to keep myself happy during the day."
Mike Wasik is Natalie's very proud father.
"She's great. She's a hard worker. She's a great student in school with her academics, you know. She's got that inner strength. She's very focused. I can't ask for anything better from this little girl," he said.
Mike is very focused, too. A retired police officer, he drives Natalie back and forth from Pendleton to Nardin Academy in Buffalo every day and to all her activities.
"I'm lucky enough to spend the time I do with my daughter, driving up to school, having conversations, on the way back, how our day was, to talk about our sports," Mike said. "Sometimes they tell her that, you know, our plate is a little full with athletics and academics, but she says. 'No, no, I want to keep continue doing everything that I do.'"
But not everyone who participates in Girls on the Run is athletic.
"What sets Girls on the Run apart from every other afterschool organized sport is we equally combine and address the emotional, social and physical part of a girl," said Buffalo Council Director Katie Joyce. "So every week there's a different topic, empowering them to feel confident about who they are, as people, on the inside, not on the outside."
The 90-minute sessions over 10 weeks are only for those who identify as a girl, in grades 3-5 or 6-8 and groups no larger than 15. Joyce said this encourages a "safe space" where everyone can talk freely and openly and be heard. After chatting, the group plays a running game that teaches more about the topic of the week.
"Girls are not timed. They're all just running at their own pace. And all of a sudden, they're like, 'Wow! I just ran five laps.' So girls of all abilities are able to participate," she said. "It's such a young age, it allows girls just to de-stress."
A recent independent study found Girls on the Run makes a stronger life-long impact than organized sports or physical education in teaching life skills such as managing emotions, resolving conflict, helping others and making intentional decisions. Joyce said these lessons can help overcome the isolation and loneliness of a pandemic -- or any other time growing up female.
"We wrote down our goal and then we ran for like 20 minutes and then we see how many laps we got, because we put on bracelets and we'll see if we make our goal," said Emma Cox.
"Then you journaled, right? After every session we would kind of keep track of what we were learning," said Nancy Cox to Emma.
Emma Cox is a fourth grader from Hamburg who participated in the fall of 2019 and 2020, while her mother, Nancy, volunteered as a coach for the first time last year. Emma is learning to pitch for her softball team and also does cheerleading, but she never ran on a track before Girls on the Run.
"My legs were on fire and I was out of breath," Emma said.
"She thought about quitting a couple of times," said Nancy.
"A lot of times," Emma said.
"But she never did. I was really, really impressed by that," Nancy said.
"Are you glad you stuck it out?" WBFO asked Emma.
"Yeah!" Emma said with a smile. She plans to sign up again this season.
The not-for-profit started in Charlotte, NC in 1996 with 13 girls. With the help of more than 100,000 volunteers, like Nancy and Katie, it today empowers more than 2 million girls annually. And the program is free for those who meet its income guidelines.
Girls on the Run Buffalo is celebrating a decade of activity, and is now in eight Western New York counties and more than 30 school districts.
When COVID first hit in March 2020, a new spring season was just starting. That had to be scratched, but the girls were back in the fall, restricted to 10 girls per group, face masks, social distancing and the rest of the pandemic health and safety rules. Lesson plans had to be adjusted and no one was allowed to use the same equipment or even magic markers.
As the virus becomes a more normal part of daily life, participation can be expanded. Registration for the spring 2021 season begins March 15.
"It's interesting," Katie said. "Every season, we hear from coaches about someone who is very despondent and not really engaging at the very beginning, and those are the girls that seem to shine the brightest by the end, because I think they just gained so much confidence."