Voices of Youth: Southeast Michigan girls share joys of running and pandemic observations

Brooke Simon likes to run. The 11-year old, who lives in Saline with her family, is an experienced runner who's kept a routine going during the pandemic; sometimes she'll dash around the neighborhood by herself, other times she'll be joined by her sister or mother.

Back when Gov. Whitmer first issued her stay-at-home orders in March, however, Simon noticed something a little unusual Brooke Simonwhen she was out running. Although she'd been accustomed to fairly quiet surroundings during her runs, she suddenly found herself with a lot of company.

"It was a lot different," she says. "There were a lot more people walking. There were people that we didn't even know before. It was very nice to see." 

While the young runner appreciated that her neighbors were getting some exercise, she did observe a bit of COVID-19-fueled apprehension in those early days.

"Even if they were way far away, you'd still see people in masks, which is sort of strange," says Simon. "[And] they'd cross the street when they saw someone coming."

Right now, there's still a decent amount of people out walking around Simon's neighborhood, but not as much as there used to be. The preteen figures this is because more entertainment options have opened up again.

In addition to running during the pandemic, Simon has kept busy riding her bike, swimming in a pool at her neighbor's house, and playing on her family's trampoline. The 11-year-old has also participated in a neighborhood scavenger hunt organized by a local teacher. Participating families wrote a letter in chalk on their driveway, and neighborhood kids drove around on their bikes trying to decipher what message they spelled out together.

Over the last few months, her family has also taken a couple trips. For Simon's birthday, they went on a backpacking trip to Manistee National Forest on the west side of the state.They also spent some time in the family's cottage in Reading, which is roughly 80 miles southwest of Ann Arbor. Out there, Simon found people had different ideas about social distancing than in Saline.

"You wouldn't see people in masks as much," she says. "We weren't really in a very crowded place, so when we got back home it was weird. You just forgot about everything that was going on." 

Running with Purpose

Simon, who's about to enter sixth grade, plans to be part of Saline Middle School's Cross Country team later this year. But she initially got her start in organized running in the third grade through a nonprofit group called Girls On the Run (GOTR).

Girls on the Run is a national after-school program for girls from grades three to eight that combines running activities with educational programming that encourages its youthful participants to be joyful, healthy, and confident. Simon participated in the Southeastern Michigan council which covers the counties of Washtenaw, Livingston, Monroe, Lenawee, and Jackson.

"We have phenomenal volunteer coaches that go into the schools and teach girls about healthy eating and body habits and how girls are portrayed in the media," says GOTR Southeast Michigan Director Rhonda Fields. "And then at the end of a ten-week program the girls run a 5K." 

The 5K race that wraps up the season serves as a metaphor for what girls can achieve if they set their mind to it. GOTR of Southeast Michigan's programming takes place over 10-week spring and fall seasons. During that time the group coordinates with around 450 coaches to serve about 1,800 girls.

For Simon, participating in Girls on the Run was a wonderful experience, particularly the 5K end-of-the-season race.

"It was just really fun to be part of the team. All the coaches and all the people would be so nice. And whenever anybody passed somebody, they'd be like, 'Good job, You're doing great!'" 

When Michigan schools closed this past March, it was the first week of GOTR's 2020 spring season. The organization immediately switched to an online format with at-home lessons and YouTube videos sending positive messages and useful tips from coaches.

Now that it's spring season has ended, GOTR of Southeastern Michigan continues to share helpful articles and uplifting words over social media. It's also planning a special virtual 5K on October 11 to celebrate the International Day of the Girl. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic it's had to suspend the start of a new season in September.

"We won't be having a fall season but our goal is to support the schools and whatever they need," says Fields. "Fingers crossed, we plan on coming back and having a spring in-person season in 2021."

Something Bigger

Soleil Wiley, an 11-year old Liberty Middle School student who lives in Canton, is another alumnus of Girls on the Run. She got involved with the organization after a group of volunteers came and spoke to her third grade elementary school class. Although it took a little warming up, she eventually grew to love her time with the program.

"At first I was skeptical. I really thought it was going to be boring and all you do is run," she says. "But It was fun. I really enjoyed it. The best part was being able to be part of something bigger than yourself." 

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, she's continued to run once or twice a week in her neighborhood. Like Simon, she alsoSoleil Wiley saw a lot of people out and about when COVID-19 first started becoming an issue in Michigan. Generally, when the middle schooler encountered them, she would try to stay out of their way.

As for the pandemic itself, she's been frustrated with some aspects of it. The middle schooler isn't a fan of virtual lessons, which she finds difficult to stay focused on for long periods of time. She really misses the in-person learning environment she had at school. But overall, she's tried to make the best of an unpleasant situation.

"When it first started, I was one of the naysayers, but I also stayed outside and tried to not pay attention to it," she says. "I tried to do what they asked [with masks and social distancing], but I honestly just stayed away from the news. I didn't want to bring down my mood." 

For her, the best part of the last few months has been spending time working on her baking skills, making cakes, cookies, and brownies. Right now she's looking forward to the new school year and hopes she'll have a chance to play on the volleyball team.

Until then, she's determined to keep exercising to stay fit and offers this advice to aspiring runners: "Just try your best, and no matter what it will always get easier!"

Going with the Flow

At 8-years-old, Rachel Korley is one of the younger participants to have been involved with Girls on the Run. She's about to start fourth grade at Dr. Martin King, Jr. Elementary School in Ann Arbor and was involved with the running program last fall.

The highlight of the season for her was the big race 5K during the final week.

"It was actually pretty fun, and we got done in a reasonable amount of time, about 45 minutes," she says. 

While that race was a pretty lively event, things have been pretty slow for Korley during the last few months. For fun, she's Rachel Korleybeen riding her bike, reading when it's rainy, writing, and doing arts and crafts. But often she finds herself missing her teacher and friends from school.

"It's pretty boring," says Korley "I do lots of things and then I get tired of doing the same things everyday. But most of the days, I find something new to do outside."
One beam of sunshine for her during the last few months has been playing in a soccer league. But even that simple joy has been altered by the coronavirus.

"It is so different," says Korley. "You have social distancing. You're doing rotations and social distancing and wearing a mask to walk around."

That said, she's enjoying it while she can. And the 8-year-old thinks that's a pretty good thing for other kids — and even grown ups — to keep in mind right now.

"You should just enjoy the summer while it's here," she says. "Go outside, run around and have fun!"

Voices of Youth is a Second Wave Media series that captures youth perspectives during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.