If you ran the Right Moves for Youth Twilight 5K earlier this month (and many of you did -- it's one of Charlotte's largest spring races), you may have noticed lots of young boys proudly wearing "Let Me Run" T-shirts.
The race was a coming-out party of sorts for the nonprofit program, which aims to build character in boys through group activities and running. Although Twilight wasn't the first event with a Let Me Run presence, it was easily the largest: 150 boys from schools throughout the area used it to mark the end of the spring program.
It'd be easy to call Let Me Run "Girls On The Run, for boys." And in fact, founder Ashley Armistead was herself a Girls On The Run coach in the late 1990s. She was also, at the time, the mom of two baby boys (Grant, now 12, and Connor, now 10).
"I could not wait for my boys to have a similar opportunity," the 40-year-old Charlotte woman writes in the "Learn Our History" section of the Let Me Run website, "to have an after school running program that offered a safe space where the boys could be themselves, express all of their fears and dreams, and feel the power of being connected to others through positive, healthy communication.
But "as my boys approached third grade, I realized that such a program did not exist."
An idea was born, and along with a host of other volunteers Armistead (as volunteer president) has since grown Let Me Run steadily into a program that this fall will reach 31 schools, a range of public, private and parochial institutions.
The six-week programs combine training for a 5K with lessons "focused on increasing self-acceptance and building healthy relationships." The current fourth-grade lesson plan, for instance, includes topics ranging from "How to be competitive without putting the competition down" to "Real men show their feelings"; in fifth grade, their are lessons on energy, electrolytes and vitamins as well as sessions on drug awareness. There's also a similar middle-school curriculum.
It's also just about getting kids active, says Let Me Run secretary Lori Klingman. "Childhood obesity seems to be getting a lot of press these days. ... A little over 17 percent of NC kids are overweight." This figure underscores the importance of the program, she says.
We recently asked Armistead to give us some background on the program, and about herself. Here's what she had to say:
Q. You were a Girls On The Run coach before you started Let Me Run. How does the approach to dealing with boys differ from the approach to dealing with girls?
Action. The boys want to move right off the bat where as the girls are willing to sit and talk for a while. Although after some activity the boys are willing to sit and open up just like the girls. [Adds Let Me Run secretary Lori Klingman: "Boys also face different issues than girls. Not all issues are universal. Some are gender-specific, and our curriculum [reflects this] based on research by our Harvard advisor, William Pollack."]
Q. How did you come up with the name Let Me Run?
We wanted to be separate from Girls On The Run, so Boys On The Run was not an option. [Armistead says GOTR attempted Boys on the Run three times but did not receive enough community support.] I was describing to a friend how the boys sprint full force from the school building to the track and the friend said that my description of the boys seemed to be screaming "Let Me Run!"
Q. So how is the program structured?
We have programs for fourth grade, fifth grade, and middle school. Our programs are separate for fourth and fifth graders, making the curricula very specific to the age. We meet twice a week for six weeks and finish with a 5k. Our maximum per group is 14 kids with two coaches. We are scheduled to be in 30 schools this fall. While we have a middle school program, the high school program has not been created yet. Our Harvard advisor, Dr. Pollack, says that a man/woman coaching team is optimal. We do encourage men and women to be coaches [but] it is actually easier to find women coaches than men.
Q. What are the "job requirements," so to speak?
It is best for at least one of the two coaches per site to have a running background. Coaches must possess a desire to give kids a place to be free to be themselves and a desire to see them grow, as individuals and team members. Coaches need to attend a half-day coaches training, obtain CPR if they do not have it, and plan for at least three hours a week for six weeks and then the 5k race.
Q. What makes the race such a critical part of the experience?
The 5k is where the boys get to put their training to the test in an environment full of boys and families that are wishing the best for each other and willing to lift each other up along the route and celebrate for each other at the finish line. The finish line is where effort is cemented into a tangible memory that the boys can draw on in the future to find strength.
Q. I know you're a runner yourself, too. What's your own personal relationship with the sport like?
I remember the joy of running as a little girl whether playing tag or running to a friend's house. I enjoyed the running part of playing sports. I really started to need running as a young adult to sort out feelings and lift my mood. I would say that I truly fell in love with running in college. It helps my sense of well-being and increases of feeling of connectedness. I currently love running for goal-setting, health, stress relief. It is also a good time to replay exciting everyday moments and dream big. I feel peaceful and part of something larger when I run.
Q. You do what you do entirely on a volunteer basis. Talk about a recent moment that has really stopped you and made you think, This is what it's all about. This makes it worthwhile.
A quote from a parent, "We've seen a noticeable difference in [our son] since participating in LMR. Others have commented on how he's become more engaged and has matured. Thanks for all you do!" There is nothing more satisfying. [Adds Klingman: "I had one boy who was unable to compete in the Twilight 5K due to health reasons. His mom e-mailed me that he went to bed that night with his race number pinned to his pajamas. Now, that is heart!"]
Q. Anything else that you want to add?
There is a lot of work involved in starting a non-profit. I am not sure that a lot of people would be willing to put in years of work for no pay. We have some very generous board members such as Lori Klingman, Beth Collins, Paul Martino, and Dan Janick who are willing to give tons of time to build boys from sole to soul. We also have Kirsten Wrinkle, Joanne Tate, Kristen Danusis, Toni Branner, Janie Cook, Drew Quartapella, John Sullivan, and Sue Gorman willing to step in and help out at a moment's notice.
As Let Me Run has grown, so has the need for funding. Both Armistead and Klingman are currently making a big push for donations that can be used to provide scholarships, program supplies, coach certification and background checks, and race entry fees, and -- eventually (they hope) -- money for a paid staffer. (Details on how to donate are here.)
For more information about Let Me Run, click here.