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Berkley student sets big goal thanks to Girls on Run program

YMCA Girls on the Run teams across metro Detroit prepare for 5K race

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BERKLEY, Mich. – Natalie Smith is looking forward to running her second 5K race at Kensington Metro Park.

It marks the end of her spring session with the YMCA program Girls on the Run.

"It really helped me a lot," Smith said.

Girls on the Run of Greater Detroit has teams all over metro Detroit that meet after school twice a week for 10 weeks. Toward the end, the girls run a 5K race, but they cross the finish line having learned so much more than how to run and stay physically fit.

"Girls on the Run is an empowerment program for girls (in) third through eighth grade," said Erin Hitchcock, a head coach for the program.

The YMCA program teaches the girls life skills and helps build confidence through interactive lessons and running games.

"They know what's going on in the schools -- bullying, peer pressure, they even talk about diet, exercise," said Lynne Smith, Natalie's mother.

Natalie Smith is part of the team that meets after school at Pattengill Elementary School in Berkley.

Lynne Smith said she has seen how the program has helped her daughter. "I've seen a huge awakening in her," Smith said. "I really think it's the way she handles herself in conflict. She used to maybe be a hothead of the age where they just slam the door, and that's it. She has really learned to speak her mind and talk about things that bother her that she loves."

Girls on the Run has taught Natalie Smith to stand up to bullies for her friends.

"It was a little hard because bullies can say stuff that's mean and it kind of breaks your heart, but you've just got to stand up for yourself," Natalie Smith said.

Hitchcock said that as the program progresses, the coaches see each girl develop confidence and discover who she is as a person.

"We see them opening up and they start to use the tools that we give them," Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock said the program also teaches the girls how to run without them realizing it.

Lynne Smith told Local 4 that she sees her daughter using the tools that the program has been teaching her. "It definitely builds self-confidence because she learns to take care of herself, exercise is important, eating right is important and she is inspiring me to do the same thing," she said.

Natalie Smith has set a big goal for herself since starting Girls on the Run. She hopes to one day run the Boston Marathon.

Lynne Smith teared up when she described her daughter crossing the finish line for the first time. "Amazing, so proud. The look on her face, she did it. She accomplished something," Smith said.

Natalie Smith's next race is May 17 at Kensington Metro Park.

The YMCA could still use volunteers to help with the event.  For more information, click here.

The program fundraises and takes donations to help support it.  The YMCA said it wants to make Girls on the Run available to all girls, no matter their financial situation, and that scholarships are available.