Backtalk; Girls' Group Gives Running Equal Time

This article ran in the sports section of the New York Timeson Sunday, July 1, 2001.

On March 8, just days after a classic northeaster backed over New England, unloading 2 feet of new snow, 46-year-old Peggy Vezina sat around a wobbly folding table and tried to convince four girls to join her in running a road race. It was a hard sell.

For the last four and a half years, Vezina had been building a sports program at Girls Incorporated, an after-school education and recreation organization for girls in the faded mill town of Holyoke in western Massachusetts. As a member of the Girls Inc. board, I have watched girls transformed by sports. During the group's first softball season, some novice players innocently referred to gloves as "mittens." By the next season, outfielders were confidently whacking the gloves' worn centers before each play and tearing after line drives. There was also a basketball team that competitors no longer took for granted, and a respectable swim team that didn't need to yell for lifeguard assistance anymore.

But there had never been a track squad and these girls weren't buying Vezina's invitation. To be fair, it was difficult for anyone to look outside at the mounds of dirty snow and conjure the faintest thought of spring. It all looked so hopelessly March.

"I run when someone chases me," one of the girls finally said with a laugh before diving into a pile of warm chicken wings.

Vezina smiled, undaunted, and waited before turning -- casually -- to 17-year-old Yaraliz Soto, the leader of the group. Would Yara be interested in training with her as soon as the snow melted? Not only was she willing to give it a try, but the youngest, Brittany Williams, also seemed persuaded. In the vibrant language of an 11-year-old, Brittany shrugged and pushed her chair across the room, looking bored and even a little sorry for Vezina, then replied, "Well, maybe, sure, it depends, I might."

Gotcha, Vezina thought.

Girls Inc. is located in The Flats, a stark, gritty matrix of streets that converge on the mills and canals, now vacant, that once made Holyoke a model of the Industrial Revolution. Every day a staff of 17 women serves more than 100 girls ages 6-17 -- 80 percent of whom are Puerto Rican -- a heaping portion of self-respect, homework help, positive role models, math and technology training, sports and spaghetti. Dinner is not just a convivial occasion at the end of a day. In this city where nearly three-quarters of the children under 12 live in poverty and where broken banisters and worn-out mothers show just how hard it is to make ends meet, the Girls Inc. meal is a blessing.

Helping girls to be "strong, smart and bold" is the motto of this national organization, and addressing issues of passivity and low self-esteem is the job day after day. Sports is a small part of the Girls Inc. mandate, but an important one. Statistics suggest that girls who participate in sports are less likely to become teen mothers, are more likely to go to college and are less prone to adult diseases.

"Physical activity at a young age results in lasting lessons about life, hard work, health and the power of being a girl," said Virginia Dillon, executive director of Girls Inc. of Holyoke.

The group's rented three-story building in Holyoke is a humble spot for such important work. On windy days, chunks of the ceiling occasionally drop into staff members' cups of coffee; the increasing number of girls has so stretched the physical confines that middle-schoolers are shuttled to other locations for satellite programs. Yet Girls Inc. makes do. When you walk into the building, the sound of boisterous girls hits you like humidity in August. It envelopes you. "At Girls Inc.," one youngster said, "I just can't stay shut."

Yara Soto is the shining example of the values the organization works to instill. Last year she won a $10,000 college scholarship from the national organization. Having just finished her junior year in high school, she is looking at Barnard, Columbia or Vassar. The scholarship was a first for the Holyoke group. When Yara won the award, girls like Brittany were positively awe-struck and were quick to follow her lead -- including tagging along for running practices.

The Girls Inc. 5K Women's Road Race is one of the group's major fund-raisers, held every Mother's Day for the last 17 years at the Mountain Park Reservoir just north of Holyoke. While the event has been successful in pulling in hundreds of women runners, it has never been able to attract many of the Girls Inc. girls. With only funds to cover a handful of coaches' salaries, track has lost out. So Vezina pitched in and with her assistant, 23-year-old Melissa Mercadante, spent time running four girls through drills and endurance training. This year they were determined that Girls Inc. would make a showing at its own race.

Near the end of April, on a windy, cold Saturday morning, Vezina stood with her hands in her pockets timing Yara as she finished a lap at the local community college track. She yelled out her time: 2 minutes 9 seconds for 400 meters. Brittany was sprawled on the grass; her legs hurt, her muscles ached, she was in no mood for any inspirational talk about "strong, smart and bold."

But a week later, Brittany had also clocked a lap in 2:09. Vezina had the girls alternate walking a lap and running one. Brittany watched as Yara cruised to a third consecutive running lap. "Is she still going?" Brittany, a sixth grader, asked no one in particular. Then she took off with long, fluid strides, whipping off her sweatshirt into the grass.

Race day finally arrived. At the reservoir, Brittany paced, looking slightly mystified by the No. 295 pinned to her shirt. She tossed her water bottle back and forth in her hands and averted her eyes, glancing up only to search for Yara, who had yet to arrive.

She gave her cousin, Angelia Ramirez, a hip check just to knock her off balance. Brittany had made it known that she wanted to leave Angelia, a small, confident 11-year-old, in the dust.

The starting signal sounded and Mercadante took off with Brittany, Angelia and 10-year-old Krishelle Colon, knowing only that they should follow the crowd of more than 300 runners and try not to be trampled. Ten minutes later, Yara and her mother arrived. They decided to do the race together, walking as a mother-daughter team and entered the pine-shaded course hand in hand.

The first runner across the finish line was Kristin Ciskowski, 20, who clocked a 19:12 for the 3.1-mile race, barely breaking a sweat. I waited with a clutch of Girls Inc. friends and family held cameras, looking for one of the girls to emerge from the woods and head for the finish line. Suddenly they saw a pint-size sprinter. It was Angelia grinning from ear to ear and gushing, "I ran the whole way. I ran the whole way."

Brittany was somewhere back in the pack. She ran a mile. Walked a mile. Ran a half. Walked a half. Then she raced all the way to the finish line. "I wanted to end up running," she said between gulps of water and air.

Six weeks after the race, Brittany no longer spends her Saturday mornings training with Team Girls Inc. Several illnesses among the staff have left the sports program barely patched together.

Looking at Brittany bounding up the stairs one afternoon in June, there was no indication that three months of training had made her more willing to do her homework or more likely to be discussing college options with Yara.

But she says the race experience taught her one thing: "It taught me discipline -- big time," she said with a smile, indicating that she had heard a few talks about the importance of discipline.

But perhaps the impact of Brittany's spring can be measured by her dreams. "Sometimes," she said, "I dream about the race. I'm at the finish line and I'm wearing a Girls Inc. T-shirt. My legs hurt and feel tired, weak. I'm afraid I'm going to fall. But I keep running. You finish something that you want to do. And when I finally finish, I see me in first place. I like to run. I think I was born like that."

Martha Ackmann is a writer and a professor of women's studies at Mount Holyoke.