Below is the full text of the speech I gave when accepting my Ten Outstanding Young People award. The photos are photos from the slideshow presentation and may or may not have anything to do with the text!
Before tonight, I never really understood what people meant when they referred to a “humbling experience.” People always used that phrase to talk about a time when they were recognized or praised, and I’d think, “How does receiving acknowledgement make you more humble? Shouldn’t it be the opposite?” Now I think I understand. As I look around the room at the other nine Ten Outstanding Young People award recipients, I realize my work is just beginning. I am honored to be in such incredible company. Thank you to the Illinois Jaycees, the Illinois JCI Senate, and the Illinois Jaycees Charitable Foundation for this honor, the Crystal Lake Jaycees for nominating me, and to my family for being here to celebrate with me tonight.
When I signed up for my first Girls on the Run 5k, I wasn’t looking for some life-changing experience. To be honest, I signed up just after finishing my first marathon. I’d been doing a lot of couch-surfing and indulging in a lot of Cheetos and ice cream.
So some girlfriends and I headed out on race day, expecting a typical 5k, maybe with a girl-focus. We arrived to find rows and rows of bright pink banners, each bearing a school’s name. Little girls were everywhere, in pink, tiaras, feather boas, sparkles, and running shoes, smiles plastered on their faces. This was no regular 5k. This was a celebration.
I made a beeline for the “Program Information” tent to find out more. There, I learned that the 5k is the end of a 12-week process. All of these girls had been learning about healthy choices, positive self-image, fostering good relationships with others, and giving back to their community. Training for a 5k was the avenue for these lessons.
A fifth grade teacher at the time, my only question was, “How do I sign up?!” Not surprisingly, there was so much demand for the program that they were not accepting new sites at that time.
Naturally, I did what any rule-following person would do. I started a rogue Girls on the Run group. I didn’t have the fancy lessons, but I had seven girls who were ridiculously excited about their first 5k in Chicago. One of those girls, Gabi, recently sent me an essay that she wrote about that first group. (She’s in seventh grade, writing her “memoirs” about life as a fifth grader.) Gabi writes, “I remember the feeling of finally being able to run outside after a long, freezing, Chicago winter. Though it was still cold, and at times, rainy, the weather could not affect anyone’s good mood. We just ran and ran, all the while singing and laughing. When one girl felt tired, the whole group slowed down to walk with her. When any one member felt like she couldn’t keep going, like she didn’t belong, we showed her that she was strong enough.”
The following year, those girls were determined to have a real site at our school, with a banner. Their determination only made mine stronger. The office staff still makes fun of me for submitting a typed cover letter with the simple application.
That spring, I began the Girls on the Run program at [Old School]. I watched girls come alive. They applied the lessons we learned on the track to conflicts in the classroom and at recess. The girls in the program stood taller, became leaders, and believed in themselves. As eleven-year old Olivia put it, “Girls on the Run makes me have self-confidence. I feel like nothing can stop me and that I am invincible! I feel as if I am the best I can be. I feel beautiful, confident, free.”
It only took one season of coaching Girls on the Run to know with all my heart that I needed to be more involved with the organization.
Girls on the Run has changed me. I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been. Each girl I coach teaches me something. I am inspired when I watch the older girls use what they learn to become mentors to the younger girls. I am amazed when an eight year old can articulate why people might choose to be friends with someone who is popular, but mean, and how she’s going to avoid that. But most of all, I get teary when each girl crosses the finish line and realizes that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.
Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The Jaycees organization is full of young people who come alive by doing things for others. Thank you again for choosing me as one of your Ten Outstanding Young People for 2011.