A Sisterhood of Runners
One of my best practices was last week when I ran 2k without stopping,” says Bersabel Eyob Ogbazghi, 17. “I never thought I would be able to run that much. It made me realize I can do anything if I practice and never give up.” Ogbazghi is one of 14 teenage girls set to run their first 5k in October backed by a Parkdale sisterhood in Toronto, dedicated to mentorship through movement. The girls are part of the Newcomer Youth Program at West Neighbourhood House ( wnh), the meeting place for weekly Wednesday runs and training.
Endurance training, character building, friendship forming
“Whenever I run I get the chance to escape and not think about my problems,” says Mari Claire Nanawa, 16. “I just focus on running and think about how wonderful it is to be in this group where you can be yourself.”
Kia Ungab, a Grade 11 student, explains how the training sessions have led to surprising outcomes.
“I like how we go home together after the run and buy momos (Tibetan dumplings) and talk about school, and also boys. My most favourite part is right after we finish a run and we give high-fives to each other while telling finishers they did a really good job,” says Ungab. “Hearing those words feels really great. It feels like an achievement.”
From fundraising to foundational relationships
Hearing this feedback leaves Anya Taraboulsy with all sorts of feels. Taraboulsy helped found this club with other volunteers from the Parkdale Roadrunners ( pdrr) Ladies Run Crew after the 300k Niagara Ragnar Relay in the spring of 2017. The 12-member team wanted to raise money to support a local organization. They eventually chose the wnh because it served women and teenage girls, and focused on promoting physical activity.
Founded in 1912, wnh is a non-sectarian agency that supports immigrant families (more than 60 cultures and over 40 languages) through community programs and social services, especially for individuals and families living on a low or fixed income. The pdrr team raised over $5,000, which went on to support wnh’s Newcomer Youth Program. The crew then decided to mentor interested girls toward a fall race. “We all knew that we could do a lot more than just raise money,” says Taraboulsy. Nike donated shoes and clothes, and second-hand clothing was collected from the pdrr. The call went out, and curious teens showed up.
Diversified training: mind, body, social
Since July, every Wednesday session has included a run or educational session led by a member or friend of the pdrr – yoga classes, trail runs, nutrition and mental resilience training. Many members of the crew are new to Toronto, first generation Canadians and English is not their first language.
“Some of our girls have been i n Toronto only a few months, so our routes introduce them to places they’ve never been before,” says Taraboulsy. “We also provide a space where the girls can talk about their goals, fears and all their training questions.”
“I want these girls to feel empowered and to be proud of how strong they are and what they can accomplish with a little sweat,” says Melissa Doldron, one of the pdrr volunteers.
“We wanted to challenge them, help them set a goal, work toward it and – probably most importantly – support each other along the journey,” says Melanie Boatswain-Watson, another pdrr volunteer. “The ladies of pdrr have gained so many incredible friends and experiences thanks to running, and we wanted to pass that sense of community through running to the girls.”
The pdrr elders have ensured the tradition of “no one left behind” and high-f ive tunnels at the f inish of every run. In just a couple months, it’s become clear that running is much more than endurance training, but a conduit to community. According to research, it’s boost in other ways, too.
A 2013 study led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health showed that girls with mentors were four times less likely to be bullies or get in fights than girls without a mentor. It’s likely the benefits of this club will be seen far beyond the track or gym class.
Ogbazghi may not yet see all the program’s rewards, but she has noticed one change.
“I used to think, ‘ Oh my god, it’s Wednesday today, should I make an excuse not to go?’ But now I wait for Wednesdays to come so that I can meet up with the rest of the team and push myself even harder.”
Parkdale’s West Neighbourhood House pdrr youth girl run crew is set to run the Scotiabank 5k in Toronto on Oct. 22.
ABOVE Parkdale Road Runners Girls youth program