Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Baby Girl on the Run

What more can I say? This gives a whole new meaning to the word "bib". I mean...come on. Seriously, there isn't a single word or sentence in any language that could possibly capture the power depicted in this photograph. Potential...future...hope...humor...wonder...that one word just doesn't exit. (Thank you Lindy...for sending this in my direction!)

Friday, May 22, 2009


I don't have much time to share. Liz Kunz, our President at Girls on the Run, and I are driving back to Detroit and then flying home to Charlotte.

Yesterday we attended the Girls on the Run 5k in Kalamazoo, MI. There is something quite magical about this city. A camaraderie exists here...a feeling of community. It's like the city is one big neighborhood where everyone looks out for each other, cheers one another on and basically takes care of one another. Case in point: the Kalamazoo Promise. I don't know the exact details but I do know that a group of caring, forward-thinking philanthropists here, pooled their money together to start a fund that would provide college tuition (to a state university) for every high school senior that graduated.

Love would be the word I could use that best describes the connections between people here. I saw it yesterday at the New Balance Girls on the Run 5k. Over 2200 girls and their running buddies ran through streets that had been shut down for their passage.

I stood at the finish line overwhelmed by it all. The sunset was beautiful, the music was invigorating and the non-stop "you did it's" or "way to go's" or "you go girl's" were just that! Non-stop!

About ten minutes after the first girls finished, the numbers of girls approaching the finish line increased. Girl after girl lifted her arms in appreciation for what she had just accomplished.

When I saw her. I had signed her shirt prior to the event. Her name was Molly. I was struck by the irony of that moment, watching her as she approached the finish line, of how she resembled the 4th grade version of me. Small-boned, shoulder length hair, tomboy, athletic. In that sea of girls I watched her as she rounded the corner and began her final 50 yards toward the finish line.

Several yards from me, she caught my eye. The smile that had hidden just below the surface could no longer keep from revealing itself and so it emerged. Big, bold, bright and radiant. Molly's smile...my heart's delight.

As she approached me, she reached her hand out for a high-five, which I gladly provided. She passed me, on toward the finish line...her victory...her life.

I couldn't hold back the tears...thankful everyday for the chance to experience the confidence, bravery and strength that I didn't know I had, in 4th grade. The chance for a "do-over". The chance to love, cherish and remind myself that the 4th grade Molly still lives within...the 4th grade Molly who is strong, bold and beautiful and who has grown up to become me.

Thank you Molly, for reminding me, of just how powerful we are.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Courage to Look Him in the Eyes

“Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain.”Robert Gary Lee

I’ve been traveling so much lately. I always come home with a strong dose of gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing women and men connected to our GOTR movement.

Time on planes, in cars and alone in my hotel room, gives me plenty of time to think, imagine and dream. I realize that we really are not creating a movement, but are part of one that is already happening. This new definition of beauty is showing up everywhere and I’m finding that the women and men involved in our program are as impacted and as moved by this message as are the girls we serve.

This is where Leigh’s story comes in.

Leigh Wallace is with a new Girls on the Run council. I had the privilege of meeting her at one of our recent Girls on the Run trainings in Charlotte, NC.

Over the course of two days, women from across the nation descend on Charlotte, NC for a very intense Girls on the Run training. Participants take back tangible tools and systems to efficiently deliver the Girls on the Run program…but what remains with me are their stories. Frequently wrapped into and around a woman’s story are her struggles in battling our culture’s obsession with bodies, sexuality and power.

I’ve got to be honest with you, when I met Leigh I was intimidated by her. Her physical strength is obvious. She is one of the strongest-looking females I’ve ever met. Her energy, though, was a bit reserved…probably intimidated by my extroversion and wide open persona…a kind of mutual intimidation society, if you will…me of her physical presence and she, of my emotional one.

After a day together, Leigh e-mailed me her story.

As a little girl, Leigh was tough. In her words, “I was the athletic girl in my grade and this made me popular with the boys. I knew that they respected my athletic ability and my power and I really liked that. I didn’t feel pretty, but I guess I probably thought I was cute in a way. I didn’t see myself as a tomboy but I did relate well to boys and worked very hard to prove to them that even though I was a girl, I could still do most of what they could do”

But something happened around middle school. Like many girls, Leigh stepped into the Girl Box, a place girls often go around sixth grade with heartbreaking results. At this vulnerable age, the formerly vibrant and strong Leigh began to morph into a girl overly-occupied by her appearance. First it showed up as restricting her food intake and then it appeared as over-indulgence. There seemed to be no end to the madness and yet, running was the one safe space in the day where Leigh felt some degree of control. She won championship races in 9th and 10th grade and got 3rd her senior year in the Kansas State Championships.

Appalachian State came knocking at her door and so the move to Boone brought with it an opportunity to buckle down, focus on her love for running and get on track with her eating. With a renewed sense of self and a desire for comfort in her skin, Leigh appeared on the ASU campus.

But changing locations didn’t prove to be the remedy she had hoped. With her continued obsession with weight, Leigh was sidelined by stress fractures and distracted by her roller-coaster relationship with the scales. Her first year at ASU certainly didn’t shake out to be what she had hoped.

And then IT happened.

September 29th, 1989 Leigh set out on an early evening run. Planning to be back by 6:30, she and her boyfriend (now husband) would then go out for a nice dinner together.

A light rain began to fall when the car slowly approached. A very scary man sat at the wheel. “Get in,” he demanded, pointing to the passenger seat with his gun. Not knowing what to do, Leigh agreed.

What occurred over the next several hours is unthinkable. He drove Leigh to a remote area outside of Boone. With a frightening and disturbing sense of calm and coolness, he raped her while psychologically tormenting her with threats of death. At first, before the numb set in, all she could think about was how loved she was. “My mother will miss me when I die,” she thought. A strange sense of gratitude seemed to float down upon her shoulders, as the violence raged around her…an overwhelming and gentle gratitude for her body, her friends, her family and her life.

Hour after hour, the torment continued. Somewhere over the course of that time frame, Daniel Lee, shared with her that he had murdered another girl-Jeni Gray. He calmly described her slow, cruel and painful death and threatened to do the same to Leigh.

Leigh managed to escape from Daniel Lee, hours later at a gas station. At the trial, as Leigh testified, she intentionally stared her tormenter in the eyes…her proof to him and herself that she wasn’t weaker because of this experience but was much stronger. Daniel Lee received the death penalty for murdering Jeni Gray. He died in prison, several years later, from a brain aneurysm.

After the kidnapping, Leigh was stronger, indeed. She went on to become a 2-time Southern Conference All-Conference performer in cross country. In track she was named the Southern Conference Most Outstanding Performer. Upon graduation, she continued to train on her own and compete. She won several state and regional races and ran her 5K PR of 16:56. She teaches and coaches at the high school level…many of them to victory in the state championships. Now, Leigh is prepared to engage 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the Girls on the Run program.

She is married with two children, wanting first and foremost to be remembered as a remarkable mother, not an elite runner. She is loved, respected and embraced by her family, her community and at last, herself.

I share this with you because it’s important that our culture honors women like Leigh…that we eliminate our antiquated ideals of beauty and recreate them to include the stories of women who are strong, brave and authentic. As I read her story that she so openly shared with me, I wept…my head in my hands and my heart in my throat, wondering…how I could possibly honor someone as brave, courageous and bold as she. And as I write to you, right now, I recognize that no words could ever do justice to the pain of her experience, nor the power she has gained from it. But what I can offer comes from Leigh herself.

“I don’t know…I guess I just love to inspire people. I love to see that light go on when someone realizes that being strong is one of the greatest feelings in the world…and to know that running makes you just as strong mentally as it does physically! To know that no matter what life’s circumstances are and no matter how hard the world may seem to be trying to hold you back, that our own personal strength and belief in ourselves is something that no one can take away without our permission. I believe this more than I believe anything and am committed to helping others believe it too.”

Leigh is, without a doubt, strength, beauty and Girls on the Run personified.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This One's for the Dads

"My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person. He believed in me."

Jim Valvano

All I know at this moment is...I need to write about it. It's been on my mind since Saturday and I haven't quite figured out what it means.

Friday afternoon, I got a beautiful set of thank you cards from a group of girls at a Girls on the Run site in Charlotte. I had made an impromptu visit to their school a couple of weeks ago and the joy we all felt during our few minutes together was wonderful!

One of the cards was from Mikayla. She had covered it with stars, hearts and amazing little swirly thingies (there really is no better way to describe them). Her words were simple and as follows:


Thank you so much for inventing Girls on the Run. I am sorry I wasn't there to meet you. I was at the hospital.

Love, Mikayla

Saturday morning I arrived at the New Balance Girls on the Run of Charlotte 5k at 7:00 a.m. Tables were being assembled and trucks were maneuvering their way across the grounds with various items...water, fruit, happy hair supplies.

I surveyed the area and gazed toward the playground. I saw two girls playing with their father. The littlest one was swinging and her big sister was climbing on the monkey bars. Dad was standing patiently to the side with two jackets draped over his arm, a stroller by his side.

I walked over to the threesome.

"Hi. I'm Molly. What's your name?"

Big Sister jumped off the monkey bars and ran right over.

"MIKAYLA," she shouted. "I'm Mikayla!"

"Yes," I responded. "I know you! I got a fabulous card from you, Mikayla. So, tell me sister, why were you at the hospital?"

"My little brother is sick. He has leukemia." She ran over to the swings to join her sister.

I sat in the last remaining swing. "Wow. That's tough. How long has he been sick with leukemia?"

"He was diagnosed just a few weeks ago," their Dad shared. "The chemo treatments are making him sick with a fever, so hes' back at the hospital. My wife is there with him this morning."

Jessica, the Program Coordinator for the Girls on the Run of Charlotte council, had told me about this situation. Not only was this family dealing with a severely sick little boy, but they were also battling financial challenges that had left them without a home and living in a motel.

I took Mikayla's hand and called over her sister.

"Ya'll come with me. I want to give you something."

A booth was set up displaying all the Girls on the Run apparel and merchandise. Each girl picked a favorite shirt off the table and put them on.

We strolled back over to the playground, the girls giggling, and talking about how excited they were to color spray their hair, be with all of their freinds from school and start the 5k at 9:00 a.m.

At approximately 9:45, Mikayla crossed the finish line. Her dad and little sister were waiting there for her. The three of them embraced...a deep kind of embrace that symbolized more than just this moment, this day...this memory. It was a pause, a reflection--a call to heaven for hope, miracles and strength.

I've yet to find the words to describe what I felt then or what I feel now as I write to you. I only know that I love and honor this father...this man...for waiting patiently, calmly and sweetly with a smile on his face and his arms open wide for his daughter to cross the finish line.

I love him for loving her so much that he found a way to put aside, for this morning at least, the challenges of fathering a very sick little boy and the stresses of a difficult financial situation, to openly share, a smile, a touch, this powerful moment in the lives of his children...and mine.

I was overwhelmed by it then and am overcome with it now...this man's ability to love that much.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Mother's Day Tribute

"I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves."

Mary Wollstonecraft

This has been a challenging week. I traveled to Jacksonville, Florida to spend some fabulous time with our GOTR girls there and conduct a workshop for professionals (and parents) interested in the message of our program.

On Thursday night, my daughter was taken to our hospital, with severe abdominal pain and relentless vomiting. I didn't sleep a wink that night...waiting until sunrise to hit the road and drive the 6.5 hours back to Charlotte.

I'm happy to report the original diagnosis of appendicitis ended up being a mean stomach bug...and while her fever continues today...I am infinitely grateful that she didn't need surgery and that her smile, albeit weak, has returned.

As I made the drive back, my thoughts were swirling...the guilt was overwhelming...wishing I could magically appear at her bedside. The wonder of motherhood is most often filled with joy, but it is a dual-edged sword. With it comes the feeling that I always need to be in two places at the same time. This tug of war with my time and my emotions oftentimes has me feeling inwardly a bit chaotic and out of control.

I remembered Chloe. She is one of my good friends and is nine years old. The last time I saw her, she ran up to me. "Look Molly. Look!" She showed me the sparkles across her fingernails--the silver glitter of girlhood. She was thrilled by the adornment and the simplicity of it.

I admired those ten fingers--everyone of them. Each finger is different--each finger a celebration of glitter, the result of a special-time-with=grandma-manicure.

I look at my own hands and the stories there...

These hands of mine have done much in their lifetime.

The little girl-hands that molded clay ashtrays at summer camp, which my father proudly displayed at his office. "My daughter made this. Isn't it beautiful?"

The adolescent girl-hands that delighted in holding a boy's hand for the first time; hands that later that night pressed on his lower back as our young bodies slow-danced at the 7th-grade dance; the tender touch, the tender moment, this tender memory.

The hands of a young woman, exploring her own sexuality and the discovery there...of the layers of my womanness; the pleasure, the sensation, the wonder of it all. The same hands that ignited the passion in another; that first touch, that first innocent expression of first love. The power of it. So frightening and wonderful all at the same time.

The teacher-hands that wrote chemical formulas on chalk boards, solved algebraic expressions and high-fived high school students who discovered the power and delight of their own intelligence.

The athlete-hands that held steady the handlebars of my bike during the bike portion of the Ironman Triathlon...across 112 milesof Hawaii's lava fields, through fierce winds and over self-doubt.

The mother-hands that held my babies while they nursed, changed diapers at three in the morning, gently washed baby skin, and touched their tiny toes and delicate fingers; hands that played this little piggy, untangled hair, and blew kisses as they marched of to their first days of kindergarten.

The healing hands that placed Band-Aids on skinned knees and provided magical powers on hurt places.

The working hands that wash dishes, mend clothes, do yard work, clean house, and fold laundry.

The loving hands that reach out to my children in those peaceful moments when we interlock our fingers and sit in the still of the moment.

The hands of despair that lift to the sky, gesturing hopelessness, rage and fury.

The hands of hope that come back down again--with gratitude.

Women's hands have much to offer. Our hands lovingly sew the tapestry of our lives, each delicate stitch of which carefully strengthens the lives of so many others. Our hands are powerful. We know the world through what our hands feel, embrace, and love. We build our lives on relationships, take time to touch our children, hug our neighbor, and reach out to others. We are in the "global trenches"--the frontline--working with one another and with children. We hold crying babies, relate to their fear, and constantly reassure in spite of what feels like turmoil swirling around them.

Driving the six hours home from Jacksonville, my mind went here, there and everywhere. I did a lot of thinking on I-95...and again as I have had it before I saw the vision...the vision that keeps revealing itself and is of such intensity that the impact of that vision on me is more than a nudge, or a whisper...but is a shout, a push, a kick.

There is, I believe, an underground current--a claiming of space--where the world of the mother, the daughter, the WOMAN is coming to the fore. We may still possess magical healing powers for skinned knees and give great butterfly kisses, but we are also strategic, wise, and very powerful. The time has never been more ripe for our voices to be heard...to talk about the things that really matter, like education, healthcare, poverty, diversity of thought, open-mindedness and love for children in ALL nations.

While I don't know the exact course this transformation in leadership will take, there is one thing of which I am absolutely certain. Our children, our planet, our lives will be safe, nourished, and loved...when enough women unite and say no more to the narrow definition of power and leadership and broaden it to include language that honors, embraces and celebrates the gifts of our bold and rich woman-experience.