Soon after Tara Bulger and her 9-year-old daughter crossed the finish line, Bulger burst into tears. Even though the race was only 3.1 miles, she couldn’t hold back the emotion and pride she felt at the accomplishment.
Bulger said this is her favorite memory while working as a coordinator and coach for Girls on the Run, a non-profit organization that uses running and other activities to inspire girls aged 8-13 to be healthy and confident in their lives.
Girls on the Run was established in Charlotte, N.C. in 1996 and serves more than 130,000 girls in 200+ cities across North America each year.
Last year, Bulger opened a chapter in Oconee County. She saw a potential benefit the program could bring to her own family - she had two young girls ages 6 and 9 who were just turning the corner on adolescence.
“I just see [my daughters] kind of going down the path of not really exercising enough,” said Bulger, who has lived in Athens for more than 20 years. “I’m not athletic, at all, but I had periods in my life when running was really great for me, so I just wanted to introduce them to that.”
At the end of every semester of the 12-week program conducted at Oconee Veterans Park, the members and volunteers run a celebratory 5K.
Bulger ran in high school as a way to fill her time, but the activity became a more meaningful part of Bulger’s routine when she entered motherhood. She said feeling healthy and strong made her more motivated to accomplish every goal she put forth for herself.
She said introducing running to the members via Girls on the Run along with the confidence-building games will hopefully have the same effect. Though a strict and strenuous schedule will never be the defining factor of the program.
“It’s funny because it’s not like a formal training,” Bulger said. “Some days the girls are like ‘Sure I’ll run’, and some days they are like ‘Maybe I’ll just hop, skip or jump.’ So if they want to walk, we certainly let them and just keep encouraging them.”
University of Georgia student and volunteer at Girls on the Run, Ashley Blocker, said she knows what it felt like to be the “slow one” when it came to running growing up. She said Bulger never makes girls feel bad about being slow at practices.
Blocker, who is a sophomore fisheries and wildlife major, said Bulger is an energetic woman always checking on everyone to see if anyone has any questions.
“She is always enthusiastic and upbeat no matter what,” Blocker, who is from Marietta.
From a distance, Bulger encourages a group of girls to run one last lap for the day, which will make it three laps in all. After a quick water break, the girls bolt down the track with volunteers by their sides. Bulger smiles as she notes how fast they are getting.
When the girls returned from the run, they gathered around Tara in a circle, putting their hands in. Tara tells them how special they all were and why it’s important for them all to keep being confident in their lives.
“She is always encouraging and goofy with the girls, so they all just love her,” Blocker said.
Another Girls on the Run volunteer Devon Griger of Perry adds that Bulger’s radiant enthusiasm with the girls brings an atmosphere of positivity to the practices.
“She’s just like eternally optimistic and just like always looking for ways to help us out when really all we are trying to do is help her,” Griger said, who is a public relations major at UGA.
Griger said Girls on the Run is a unique organization because it does not only target underprivileged girls, but any girl of that age group.
“The thing that is cool about Girls on the Run is that there’s not like a target market there that’s like desperately in need of help,” Griger said. “Like they are me minus 10 years. So it’s kind of cool being able to give back and help out the “you” you wish you had been when you were 9,10 or 11 years old.”
Griger said she has never run a 5K before but looks forward to the next one scheduled for April 26 with Bulger and the girls. Griger believes Bulger’s encouragement and spirit will be ever present on that day because it will be when the girls really need it.
“My hope for this next 5K is that I will have another great moment with my daughters as we cross that finish line,” Bulger said. “It’s never easy during the actual race, but when you actually finish it, it makes you think about all the other things you didn’t think you could do.”
More information for Girls on the Run can be found at their website http://www.girlsontherun.org/.