LIVINGSTON, NJ — Livingston’s Girls on the Run (GOTR) team, part of a nation-wide, non-profit organization dedicated to creating a world where every girl knows and activates her potential and is free to boldly pursue her dreams, ran its culminating Jaycees 5K Race in Florham Park on Saturday. Meeting twice a week in the months leading up to the event, 16 Livingston girls in grades three to five learned the importance of physical fitness, but also the significance of understanding themselves, thinking positively, valuing relationships and understanding how they can connect with and shape the world at large. 

More than 1400 participants, including all of the Essex, Union and Morris County GOTR teams, received medals for crossing the finish line on Saturday morning. 

“I was so proud of myself for running my first 5K,” said fourth-grade GOTR teammate Ava Green. “When I started Girls on the Run, I didn’t think I could do it, but I ran the whole race. I want to continue running forever.”

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Livingston Public Library’s Youth Librarian Gina Vaccaro, Livingston mother of three Lauren Petrecca and 22-year-old GOTR veteran Ashley Abendschoen spent 10 weeks discussing goals with the girls, playing interactive, bond-forging games and encouraging lifelong health and fitness through running. With the end goal being the completion of the GOTR 5K, practice workouts were used to inspire and motivate the girls and ultimately build confidence through their accomplishments. 

“For months these girls have been practicing and training for the 5K and I’m so excited to see that they were all able to complete the race with smiles on their faces,” said Livingston Mayor Michael Silverman, who is an avid supporter of the GOTR program. “It is just proof positive that any time you put your mind to something it can be accomplished. I’m so proud to be the mayor of a town where there is a group of kids that can accomplish anything they want to do.”

Vaccaro said her biggest hope is that the other girls, like Green, learned that when they set goals, make an action plan and work toward their goals, then they can achieve amazing things. When Vaccaro asked the girls how they felt after the practice 5K prior to Saturday’s race, one girl who was wasn't the most confident in the group smiled and said that she finally felt like a runner. According to Vaccaro, the Livingston team’s head coach, it is satisfying to know that her teammates now understand that they are valued for who they are as individuals and not by how fast they may run.

“I liked how they taught us about being healthy,” said Green. “I had so much fun, I made great friends and I learned that I can do anything that I want because all I have to do is make my goals, practice and have confidence.”

Certified GOTR coaches like Vaccaro, Petrecca and Abendschoen, help the young girls to develop crucial social and psychological skills as well as physical ones. According to GOTR’s mission, the end result is making the “seemingly impossible, possible” and teaching the girls that they can. Vaccaro said that throughout their weeks of training, the girls worked together to strengthen themselves mentally as well as physically and she is confident that they will begin to apply what they have learned in GOTR to the choices they make in their day-to-day lives.

“I want each girl to keep on being themselves, trying their best and having fun in all areas of their lives,” said Vaccaro. “They learned strategies in GOTR about how to make good choices for themselves and how to handle unwanted peer pressure and bullying. I hope those strategies stay with them as they grow older and move into their teenage years.”

According to the GOTR mission, the program is designed to allow every girl to recognize her own inner strength. As the girls make new friends, build confidence and learn to celebrate their individual uniqueness, the hope is that the GOTR curriculum will inspire them to “define their lives on their own terms.”

The girls, who range in ages eight-11, are encouraged to discuss the beliefs, experiences and challenges girls at this age often face. It is the coaches’ job to help them come up with strategies for how to navigate challenging life experiences. According to GOTR, the physical-activity aspect is woven into the program to inspire an appreciation of healthy habits. 

With each consecutive session together, the three Livingston coaches hope to instill the value of healthy living into the minds of the Livingston GOTR team, and hope they continue living a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. 

“I hope that through their own personal achievements in GOTR the girls learn to believe in themselves,” said Vaccaro. “I hope that they embrace their uniqueness and let their inner light shine bright and strong. I hope that they keep on running.”