Molly Barker is the Founder of Girls on the Run International (GOTR). The group inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum, which creatively integrates running. GOTRI strives for a world where every girl knows and activates her limitless potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams.

Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run, shares one story that proves the power of events.

I started GOTR in 1996 with just 13 girls in Charlotte, N.C. The program is now offered in nearly 200 North American cities with more than 140,000 girls and women involved.

Many people have asked how it feels to have started something that has had and continues to have such a significant reach in the world. It feels pretty amazing, actually! But, for me, it isn’t about the numbers, but the quality and level of connection we create by the event experience we offer; that sense of “being one” with the girls, their coaches, their families, the schools and our communities. One of our Girls on the Run core values is connectedness. We believe that feeling a sense of connectedness is what grounds us, centers us and provides the foundation so when we reach for our highest sky. We remain rooted in our power and gratitude.

One of the signature experiences for our girls and all those involved is the Girls on the Run 5k. The 10 to 12 week program culminates with a running/walking event, an opportunity for our girls and the people who love them to come together and celebrate.

More than 170 of our GOTR communities offer the 5k experience to their girls. When I created the first culminating 5k event, I was very mindful of my intention for doing so. This was not a fundraiser. This was not an awareness campaign. This was a life-changing, authentic event experience designed to celebrate girls and their amazing power.

The events can be incredibly powerful. A few years ago, I attended one of our 5k events in Kalamazoo, Mich. After most of the girls finished the 5k, an impromptu line formed of girls wanting me to sign the backs of their shirts. What a privilege for me to share, with them, this precious dot on the timeline of their lives (and mine.)

“What’s your name?” I ask a young woman, probably 11 years old or so.

“I’m Emily.”

Girls in the GOTR program run a 5k race while learning about self-confidence and striving for your goals.

“Good job Emily! That must mean you are EXTRAORDINARY EMILY.” I sign that on the back of her shirt and add a quick “Molly B.” We embrace each other and off she goes.

“What’s your name?” I ask again.

“I’m Amber.”

“Way to go Amber! That must mean you are AWESOME AMBER.” The process continues for several minutes. My heart is filling up to overflowing with each and every exchange.

And then I come to…her.

“What’s your name?”

Standing before me is a delightful mess. Her shoulder-length, light brown hair is completely soaked. She stands no taller than my waist–thin little legs with knobby knees, ribs apparent through a drenched t-shirt and miniature hands, as delicate as a china doll’s. Her face is beet red with freckles peppered across the fair skin of youth. Her baggy shorts are tied as tightly as possible around her mid-section, the hem of them still below the knee.

She is speechless.

I kneel to be eye level.

“Hey there, what’s your name? Do you wanna tell me?”

Someone from further back in line, clearly much bigger and older hollers out, “Her name is Melissa!”

“Melissa. Mmmm,” I pause for a moment. “You are definitely Magical Melissa.”

Barker often meets girls in the GOTR program, which gives her insight into how profoundly the 5k event affects its young participants.

And this is where words fail me. In that wordless space between the two of us something was being exchanged that was, indeed, magical. I knew exactly how she was feeling. I could see it in her eyes, feel it in her gaze and literally touch it with my soul. In that brief instant, we were one in the same, Melissa and me. She was me and I was her and for a second I stood there before her as the fourth grade Molly who somehow didn’t feel like she fit in. The fourth grade Molly who was scared to speak up in class, told that tomboys were weird and somehow just didn’t feel pretty enough.

In that visible empty space between the two of us, I saw what was in her and she saw what could be in me.

“You just can’t find the words, can you?”

She shook her head, a smile rising up from somewhere deep inside began to make its way across that beautiful beet red face.

“Will you sign my shirt?” I asked.

She enthusiastically nodded her head.

I handed her the pen, turned on knee to present my back to her. I felt her tiny fingers straighten the fabric of my green Girls on the Run tee-shirt and delicately scribble out words yet unknown to me.

Later on that night, I slowly undressed, exhausted from the day. I carelessly pulled the tee-shirt from my back, tossed it onto my hotel floor, replaced it with a clean one and snuggled my way into much needed sleep. Reaching over to turn off the light, I glanced to the shirt that lay at my bedside.

And then I see her words hiding there, tucked in among the dozen or so names and scribblings across the back of my shirt: Magical Molly.

Melissa may have said nothing, but my memory of her speaks volumes.

Celebration, empowerment, activation of potential and (dare I say it?) Love. What do you intend to bring to life at your event?

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