Carolinians on the Run

Sometimes the best research is the research born of true collaboration. Take the ongoing project of social work assistant professor Aidyn Iachini and Girls on the Run Columbia council director and triple alumna Mary Lohman.

A fun, curriculum-based physical activity youth development program, Girls on the Run is a 501(c)3 that promotes self-esteem, responsibility, optimism and a host of other positive attributes while training girls for a 5K. It also pays big dividends for its volunteers and for people like Lohman and Iachini, whose efforts are having an impact both locally and nationally.

“We are so much more than a running program — we’re focused on the whole girl,” says Lohman, who participated as a volunteer coach as a teenager in Atlanta before assisting exercise science professors Karin Pfeiffer and Russ Pate to bring the program to the Midlands while still an undergraduate. She went on to earn master’s degrees in social work and public health. 

“I know the impact Girls on the Run can have,” she says. “I see the difference not only in the lives of the girls who are in the program but also in the lives of the volunteers who are the backbone of our organization.”

While Girls on the Run Columbia was already a successful program when Lohman came on full time five years ago, she wanted to know more about how the program was being implemented by its coaches, who range from parents to seasoned teachers to college students, and what they needed to make their jobs easier.

Enter Iachini, Lohman’s former professor, who routinely teaches the College of Social Work's course on program evaluation. With help from public health professor Michael Beets, she and Lohman co-designed some pre- and post-surveys that zeroed in on the barriers and facilitators to implementing the program. The findings had an almost immediate impact at the local level.

“We want to make sure we’re training our volunteers appropriately and running things appropriately — it’s just like any other business in that respect,” Lohman explains. “Aidyn’s research helps us stay up to date and also gives us a legitimacy when we explain to parents, for example, why we’re not a competitive program.”

The team’s findings also informed a couple of papers that have caught the attention of the international Girls on the Run organization.

“Possibly the coolest part of the collaboration is that Girls on the Run Columbia has been able to inform revisions to both the curriculum and the evaluation processes at the international level,” Iachini says. “Some of their advice to coaches is directly derived from our study. That research has also allowed Mary to showcase Girls on the Run Columbia as a truly innovative program.”

Of course, there’s also a personal payoff for both women.

“This position challenges me every day to be a better me,” Lohman says. “I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but we’re asking the girls in the program, and our coaches and volunteers, to reflect on themselves. It’s important that we do that as well.”

Iachini, meanwhile, has participated as a running buddy for a friend’s daughter.

“There are things happening for girls in this program that just can’t be captured in a survey,” she says. “It’s really exciting to see the girls benefiting from the program. I’m definitely excited about our partnership moving forward.”

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