Running program teaches life lessons

Featured: Running program teaches life lessons

Running program teaches life lessons

Nikki Mercer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master of science in family and consumer sciences.

Story: Christine Walsh

Photos: Christine Walsh

Nikki Mercer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master of science in family and consumer sciences. The rural Champaign native took up running at age 26 when she decided she needed a new challenge. So when a 9-year-old girl she mentored at her children’s school asked her to be a “running buddy” for Girls on the Run in 2014, she instinctively agreed. Motivated by its objective to empower girls in third through eighth grade, Mercer’s daughter participated in the program the following year, and now Mercer is the council director. “It’s where a lot of my worlds collide,” Mercer said.

Founded in 1996, Girls on the Run is an after-school program with about 210 councils created to raise girls’ self-esteem through life-skill lessons, mentoring, group discussions and exercise. GOTR’s creator, Molly Barker, was a triathlete. “This came out of her heart for her love of sports and what young girls go through,” Mercer said.

The running component ties in well with the growing popularity of the activity locally, especially since the advent of the Illinois Marathon, Mercer added. “Kids have started running at a younger and younger age now,” she said. “It’s a great way to get girls together and moving.”

The life-skill lessons focus on competence, confidence, caring, character, connection and contribution. Participants gather twice each week during a 10-week season and are taught through lessons and physical challenges devised to cultivate decision making, teamwork, healthy eating and good exercise habits. They close with energy awards, during which the girls cheer, often with the tag line “Girls on the Run is so much fun,” and recognize participants who demonstrated positive attributes.

Volunteers who are certified through a coach training program lead the teams so that the curriculum is delivered consistently at each site. The girls learn self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses to help them develop healthy friendships.

In addition to the younger girls, GOTR has a program called Heart and Sole for girls in sixth through eighth grades. Currently, one local site offers that program.

Near the season’s conclusion, the girls collaborate to brainstorm, gather resources and execute a community service project. Some of those projects have included making dog toys for the Champaign County Humane Society, book drives, food drives and making blankets for Crisis Nursery.

And, as the name suggests, during that time they are also physically training to complete a 5K run. “They set their own goals,” Mercer said. “We very much focus on mastery rather than performance.”

Both the fall and spring seasons close with an untimed, noncompetitive, celebratory 5K. “It gives them a tangible sense of accomplishment,” Mercer said. “No other program bundles all of these things together. We call it ‘a running program and so much more.’”

The program is designed to enhance skills and behaviors to help girls develop their physical, social, mental and emotional well-being to help them navigate through life experiences like bullying. “It ties all of that together,” Mercer said. “It helps the girls find their voice and find the voice of truth. With all of the voices girls start hearing, they wonder, ‘Am I good enough? Do I measure up? Do I belong?’ They’re inundated with all of these messages from the outside.”

GOTR teaches the girls that they have limitless potential. “They set a goal, and if they don’t meet it they try again,” Mercer said. “We want the girls to know they are enough, just as they are.”

The coaches, who are often school teachers, counselors, or social workers, model appropriate behavior for the girls to teach them how to value themselves and others. “Amazing relationships develop,” Mercer said. “They are the heartbeat of the program. It’s as much of a rewarding experience for the coaches as the girls.”

Through the program, girls who may not have a lot in common get to interact with each other and get to know one another better. “There’s always an opportunity for them to find new friends,” Mercer said.

Girls on the Run of Champaign County is a program of the Stephens Family YMCA. Mercer said the partnership was a natural one since both emphasize the importance of helping people develop a healthy mind, body and spirit. “It’s an incredible asset to our community,” Mercer said. “It does so much for our community.”

One of Mercer’s favorite GOTR memories is of a program participant who said, “My coach says I have a beautiful heart.” “That has always stuck with me,” Mercer said. “They have infinite worth and value.”

That girl has gone on to be a successful track athlete. “Some of the girls do connect with that part of the program,” Mercer said. “That’s pretty cool to see the girls who that really resonates with.”

Another of Mercer’s most cherished moments was the Fall 2018 5K, which fell on a cold and rainy day. “This was not what they signed up for,” Mercer said. “You would think it would make for a miserable day, but all I remember is just joy – complete joy. We just had all kinds of hands up in the air. What a great life lesson: Find joy in the journey.”

All of the girls select running buddies, who are trusted adults who provide encouragement and an element of safety. “You build accountability with your running partner,” Mercer said. “The more miles you run with somebody, the more you get to know them.”

The girls aren’t the only ones who’ve learned from GOTR’s core values. “It’s taught me so much about leadership, about interacting with other people and about celebrating each other’s differences,” Mercer said. “Leading with an open heart is a huge life skill. It’s helped me love people more.”

As council director, Mercer oversees about 15 program sites throughout Champaign and Ford counties. The local council, started in fall 2014, began with about 85 girls. Today, it serves about 350 girls each year. Although most of the sites are in schools, community organizations, park districts and churches can host them.


Get Involved

As of press time, the following Champaign County and Ford County locations host Girls on the Run programs. For information on volunteering, donating or starting a GOTR program, visit or contact Mercer at 217-239-2841 or


Campus Middle School for Girls, Urbana


Barkstall Elementary, Champaign


Carrie Busey Elementary, Savoy


Dr. Howard Elementary, Champaign


Kenwood Elementary, Champaign


Countryside School, Champaign


St. Matthew School, Champaign


Broadmeadow School, Rantoul


Fisher Grade School


Gibson Area Hospital, Gibson City


Lincoln Trail Elementary School, Mahomet


Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High


Stephens Family YMCA


Unity East Elementary School, Philo


Unity West Elementary, Tolono