By Ashley Wiles (as told to Katherine Dolan)
Six years ago I met Kate.
At 8 years of age, Kate showed up to one of our Sole Girl summer camps and on the outside appeared to be a leader and super smart. At the end of our camp, we gave out certificates to all the girls, congratulating them on something specific we noticed about them in the program. Things like smart, strong, confident. In Kate’s case, we wrote a leader. She immediately ripped it up.
I asked her why she did that and she responded that she wasn’t a leader and that she didn’t have leadership qualities. We talked it through with her and finally, she let us give her another certificate. But that experience shook me. At 8, this little girl had low self -esteem, extreme anxiety and just couldn’t see herself as a leader.
Sole Girls offers programs and events and for young girls to get active, connected, build confidence and be empowered. Kate didn’t come back to us until the winter for a 9-week session. Throughout the program, we train for a 5KM and Kate struggled at the start. She would say I am not strong, my friend is stronger, my friend is better, I can’t do this.
One day I stopped her.
I said, ‘Kate repeat after me.’
‘I am strong, I am powerful, I am Kate.”
She asked me why I would say that because she’s none of those things. I said just try.
So we start running again and she softly says, I am strong, I am powerful, I am Kate. Then she bursts into tears.
We keep running and get to the end of practice and before she leaves, she comes and whispers in my ear, I am strong, I am powerful, I am Kate. Now it’s my turn to cry.
This story always brings me to tears, because it just takes one small thing that can change the course of someone’s life. For Kate, this was it. She came back, showed up, a little louder and a little louder every time. And when she finished her 5 KM she ran through the finish line repeating her mantra.
She is the reason I run Sole Girls and continue to expand to reach as many young girls as we can. The reality is that we see this next generation of young girls and they are strong and talented and capable and beautiful but they don’t see it. It’s easier to put yourself down rather than lifting yourself up.
In the six years I’ve run Sole Girls, I see so many challenges, but the biggest is connection and friendship. Our young girls are not feeling understood, they’re seeing that people aren’t accepting them for who they are and they can’t be themselves. We tell them they can, but they show up as themselves and aren’t accepted by their peer group.
We use sports, specifically running as our tool to empower these young girls to build a community, find a support network and believe in themselves. Through real conversations, tackling hard topics, setting attainable goals and supporting each other, they are more empowered in sport and in life.
Where the disconnect happens as a society I believe, is that we are all too busy. We want to do all things, be all things, create this amazing life for our kids but it’s stressful for parents and it’s stressful for kids. I wish as a community supporting our young athletes that we realized we don’t have to do it all. Our kids just want to be with us, they want us to participate with them and have real quality conversations because those moments are what make the difference.
For parents, my best piece of advice is to be consistent in your own values and role model for your kids. Engage in sport and physical activity, don’t just tell them to do it, do it with them. Take care of yourself, take care of your mental health, go for a walk, go to yoga, take time for yourself not occasionally but regularly. Your kids will see this and realize it’s important to you, so they might take more interest in it themselves.
For young girls, know that you have value. You can be confident in yourself and not be seen as bragging. As women and girls, we often worry about coming across too self-confident, but there is a difference between knowing you have value and being a valuable person. You, are a valuable person, own it.
After all, you are strong, you are powerful, you are you.
See you on the trails,