Giving Girls a Running Start

Mary Uran

Mary Winzenburg Uran '06 (pictured top) and Kori Fitschen Carlson '04 (pictured bottom) didn't know each other in college. Though they had mutual friends, and their time at Saint Ben's overlapped, they never actually met. But the Bennie connection runs deeper than four years on campus. And just five years after graduating, the two became colleagues - working as a team to bring a nonprofit organization called Girls on the Run to the Twin Cities.

"It's a youth development program," explains Kori, "but at the core, it's really about giving girls the tools they need to be successful."

Third through eighth grade girls meet after school for a 10-week season in the fall and spring. They train for a 5k run over the course of those 10 weeks, but most importantly, they have fun while doing it.

"Girls on the Run inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident, using a fun, experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running," says Mary. "There's no prior experience required. It's not a running program, it's a youth program that uses running as a catalyst for change."

Kori Carlson

It's a national organization that began in 1996. But the Twin Cities never had their own official branch of the nonprofit.

Kori first heard of Girls on the Run while at Saint Ben's, volunteering to time runners at the Girls on the Run 5k in Red Wing. When she moved to Utah for grad school, she did behind-the-scenes work to help start and coach the Salt Lake Council of Girls on the Run.

Mary discovered the organization at a volunteer fair in Washington, D.C., where she was working in the Attorney General's office, and began coaching a team after work.

But life brought both women back to Minnesota.

Kori first contacted Girls on The Run to try to start a local branch. The organization connected her with others who were interested in the same thing.

But the process was moving too slowly. The group tried to work through YMCAs and community centers instead of establishing themselves as an independent organization.

When Mary moved back to Minnesota for grad school, things began to click. Girls on the Run connected Mary with Kori. It was then that they started working together, and realized their Bennie connection.

"It seemed appropriate that the only other person who was ready to start working and building an organization was also a Bennie," says Mary.

The two made strategic choices to drive forward as an independent organization.

"I think sometimes there's a timing piece," says Kori. "Right from the start, Mary had put in the application to be an independent 501(c)(3). It's a lot more work because you're becoming an actual nonprofit. That's what we needed to do - we needed to stand on our own."

Both women had fundamentally different strengths. Kori majored in psychology at Saint Ben's, and Mary majored in political science and communication. In the initial months, Kori became the director of operations, and Mary the director of development.

"Our skill sets and our strengths just complemented each other really well," says Kori. "Mary was more the face of Girls on the Run, and I was the behind-the-scenes person working on a lot of the details. That worked for us."

In July 2011, Girls on the Run Twin Cities was officially established as a 501(c)(3), with Mary as the executive director. They launched their first season for girls in the spring of 2012 with six coaches and four participants.

In their most recent season, they had 150 coaches and 1500 participants in the 11-county Twin Cities metro area.

While coaches are ultimately in charge, the program is largely girl-led. And that brings huge changes in the participants after the program is over.

"I remember a mom this spring talking about how her daughter was very shy at any after school activity," says Mary. "At first, she was sitting against the wall at practice, but eventually she started participating in not only the running but also the activities, raising her hand. At the end of the season, I saw her at the 5k, wearing butterfly wings, giving her teammates high fives and dancing to the music. She'd really come alive."

Mary and Kori say the youth development aspect is central to what Girls on the Run is all about.

"Making a place where people feel safe, and where they can grow and turn to someone, is a big deal," says Kori.