AUGUSTA — Kiana Goldberg just likes running. She said that is why she joined a running club at her Augusta elementary school.

“I’m really energetic, and I really like to stay active,” Kiana, 11, said. “It’s really fun to run.”

Kiana and 23 other girls from grades 3-5 at Gilbert Elementary School are a part of the Girls on the Run program. The national youth development organization combines an interactive curriculum and lessons with running to promote healthy lifestyles and inspire self-respect.

Organizer Paige Knowlton, a third-grade teacher at Gilbert, said a lot of girls at that age don’t have confidence in themselves, so this program is a nice confidence builder. She said the relationships they are building with each other and the new friendships that are forming are great.

Emily Clark, executive director of Girls on the Run Maine, said confidence building and having a positive image is an important part of the program, especially considering what girls may see or hear on television or social media.

“It’s very important for girls to realize that their potential is limitless,” Clark said. “We call it the opportunity to author their own story.”

Last fall was Gilbert’s first season in the program. Fifteen girls took part in the lessons, the running and also a community impact project — making holiday cards for a local assisted-living facility. This season, in addition to training for a celebratory 5-kilometer race June 5 at the Cumberland Fairground, the 24 girls plan to either help an animal shelter or make tie-dyed T-shirts for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“It was a lot of work to get girls to sign up, especially because it costs money,” Knowlton said. “We had to promote it, make fliers and have meetings. But we had more girls sign up than we expected.”

The program costs $130 to join, but the parents’ organization gave the school a scholarship that reduced the cost of membership to $75. Knowlton said additional financial aid is available to those who cannot afford the membership fee.

The group meets every Monday and Wednesday for 10 weeks. The first part of the practice is the classroom lesson covering topics including self-respect and self-image, teamwork and cooperation and ways to give back to the community. The last 30 to 45 minutes of practice is spent outside running.

Kiana said the program helps her stay positive and helps her make new friends, including fifth-grader Gabi White, 11, and third-grader Kailey Michaud, 8. Gabi said she enjoys pushing herself and running faster than she ever thought she could run, and Kailey likes getting exercise.

Knowlton said the girls don’t see each other much during the day because they are in different grades; but when they come to practice, they are happy, energetic and willing to be open about certain things they wouldn’t talk about in class.

Jenna Sementelli, a kindergarten teacher and one of the team’s coaches, said it’s nice to see the girls interacting with each other differently from the way they do during the school day.

“They really take what they learn here and apply it to their lives either at school or at home,” Sementelli said. “We talk about their star power and their confidence. They radiate all of this confidence now.”

The national organization, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, was founded in 1996. Maine’s independent council started in the fall of 2012 with one site. This season the program has 595 girls at 33 locations in Maine, and there are 226 independent groups across the country.

“It shows there’s a need for the program,” Clark said. “We just want to serve as many girls as possible.” Clark said the organization is always looking to add sites and girls to the program, especially in the Kennebec valley region.

The Maine group does a lot of fundraising to cover program costs and considers Bangor Savings Bank and Fleet Feet running stores to be major sponsors. The program requires lots of supplies, and each participant receives a T-shirt, a water bottle and registration for the 5-kilometer race.

“The program is about building life skills each week and building their confidence, which is the key to completing a 5K race,” Clark said. “That sense of accomplishment is unmatched, and we hope they will carry it through their lives.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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