BRATTLEBORO -- There's a place called the "girl box," and Nancy Heydinger long ago climbed out of it.
And she has helped thousands of others stay out of it as the driving force behind Girls on the Run Vermont, a 13-year-old organization so successful that Heydinger has earned an award from the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
The Vernon resident has seen many smiling girls cross finish lines. But her own journey continues, a fact evidenced by the emotion in her voice when she recalls a recent race and thinks of her own experiences as a young girl.
"It just swells my heart -- seeing the girls there and seeing their spirit," Heydinger said. "I didn't have that self-confidence."
First, the "girl box": Girls on the Run advocates use it to describe "a place where only girls who are a certain size with a certain beauty are popular. Where girls who want to fit in have to mold their bodies and their personalities to fit the requirements of the box."
The Charlotte, N.C.-based program is designed to combat that mentality with a curriculum that, according to its website, aims to be nothing short of "life-changing" for Girls on the Run (third through fifth grades) and Girls on Track (sixth through eighth grades).
Meeting twice a week -- in an after-school setting in most places -- participants discuss topics such as nutrition, emotions, collaboration and peer pressure. The program includes
Last month's Girls on the Run 5K in Brattleboro featured about 2,000 runners.
Expecting such a turnout might have seemed unrealistic in 1999, when Heydinger brought Girls on the Run to Vermont by hosting a program in Vernon with 15 participants.
Today, there are 2,500 girls in the program statewide, and more than 20,000 have participated since 1999.
"We're in 125 schools right now, and we have 188 programs. We're in 13 of the 14 counties," Heydinger said in an interview at her Brattleboro office a few days after staging a 5K in the Burlington area.
Volunteers fuel the organization. Heydinger, who is executive director, works with only three part-time staffers to coordinate the state's many, far-flung Girls on the Run programs.
"We have over 500 (volunteer) coaches. Our issue is, we have more demand than we have coaches," she said, adding that "there's definitely more potential. We just need to figure out a way to reach more people."
She also wants to reach more sponsors; Heydinger said a big part of her job is drumming up financial support. It costs about $120 to put each participant through the program, but administrators set the fee at $70 and said there are scholarships available for girls in need.
"We've never turned a girl away, and we never will," Heydinger said.
That's because she believes girls who complete the program carry with them valuable lessons.
"The first goal is that they embrace who they are," Heydinger said. "They can be as they are and embrace their own gifts and talents."
As evidence that the program works, administrators can produce pages of testimonials. One parent wrote: "I have never heard her say, ‘Mom, I'm really proud of myself,' until the 5K run."
Further evidence is in the recently announced President's Council award.
In a statement accompanying the announcement, council Executive Director Shellie Pfohl said, "individuals like Nancy are working tirelessly to encourage physical activity and proper nutrition to positively impact the health of their communities."
That's no big news for Elizabeth Catlin, a Girls on the Run Vermont board member whose daughters have experience in the program.
"It's incredible to see how Nancy's been able to take it from one site to something that's statewide," the Dummerston resident said.
Catlin noted that Heydinger "is an athlete herself and is such a cheerleader for fitness" who also embodies the program's positive outlook.
"She's one of those people who, you never have a conversation with her without feeling better about yourself," Catlin said.
Rita Ramirez, another Girls on the Run Vermont board member, was surprised at the number of volunteers from southern Vermont who made the trek to the recent 5K in Burlington. She believes that is Heydinger's influence at work.
"She knows a lot of people," Ramirez said. "And they're inspired by her."
As for Heydinger, she calls the President's Council award a "wonderful honor" but says credit should go to the program's many volunteers.
Her reward seems to be in watching the transformation of so many "girls on the run." Heydinger harkens back to a time when she was shy and introverted.
"I didn't talk much as a young girl. I didn't participate in much, I guess from fear of failing," she said.
She believes Girls on the Run has and will continue to change her life.
"It's made me feel that I have something to contribute," Heydinger said. "I can help."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.