Healthy Choices

Mermaid-themed running club encourages girls to swim upstream

Heidi Boynton, 44, of Santa Cruz, right, celebrates with fourth-grade Mini Mermaid members following their run at Bell Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday in Sacramento.
Heidi Boynton, 44, of Santa Cruz, right, celebrates with fourth-grade Mini Mermaid members following their run at Bell Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

Heidi Boynton jogged onto the blacktop of Bell Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday and was attacked by a gaggle of fourth-grade girls. The students, all in yellow T-shirts and big smiles, had never met Boynton. But they knew that she was someone important – the founder of the club that gave them a reason to run.

The fourth-graders, all members of the school’s Mini Mermaid Running Club, joined Boynton for the last few laps of her 13-mile Sacramento route, part of an eight-city circuit she’ll complete this week to raise money for the girl-powered nonprofit.

Tuesday marked the second of eight half-marathons in Boynton’s “Run Sweat Love” campaign – an arduous journey that will take her down the California coast and to Mexico by next Wednesday. The goal is to raise $75 for each of the 105 miles she intends to complete – enough to enroll 105 low-income students in the club, an after-school program aimed at promoting fitness and self-confidence in young girls.

Boynton, a Citrus Heights native, founded the club in 2009 in response to what she considered alarming rates of obesity, sexually transmitted disease and suicide among adolescent girls. Following her own struggles with self-esteem and a long battle against a rare blood disorder, Boynton dived into a fitness career and honed a firm belief in the connection between moving one’s body and loving oneself. She developed the program, now active in 12 other states and seven other countries, to “shift the conversations about what (girls) are capable of doing.”

“Understanding my worth and value came from my connection to moving my body and hearing my voice,” she said. “Whether it’s walking or dancing or tennis or yoga or running 105 miles, when we move our bodies we are uniquely open to hearing our internal conversation. That’s when we really show up – when we put one foot in front of the other.”

Boynton, 44, stopped for a visit Tuesday at Bell Avenue Elementary – the first of six schools in the Sacramento area to adopt the club. The program, run by teachers, parents or community members on each campus, can enroll 10 female students for every adult volunteer.

The cost of the six-week Mini Mermaid curriculum is usually $75 per student, but schools with 41 percent or more students below the poverty line, including all six Sacramento-area schools, receive the program free of cost, thanks to middle-tier schools that pay the full price and affluent schools that pay $150 per girl.

The program has made a huge difference since it launched at Bell in 2013, said Jennifer Ruby, fourth-grade teacher and volunteer coach for the school’s club. The girls have learned about teamwork and self-confidence, and are spreading that message to fellow students. After they finished Boynton’s program in the fall, they entered the annual Sacramento Santa Run 5K. This Sunday, a team of first-graders they helped train will complete Runnin’ for Rhet, a charity race of the same distance.

“The idea is that you start from wherever you are and you build on that skill set,” Ruby said. “It’s important for them to know that wherever they are, be it in reading or math ... they just run their race. They don’t’ need to compare themselves to others, they don’t need to worry about what the other kids are doing. They just need to know who they are and how to progress from there.”

Believing in oneself is a big part of the Mini Mermaid story, which is told by two family-friendly characters: Mini Mermaid, the clear inner voice, and Siren, the confusing voice from the outside world. The first segment of the curriculum helps girls embrace their own feelings about themselves and eschew negative messages from the media or their peers. As the curriculum continues, girls learn about community service, healthy eating, choosing friends and planning for the future – with lots of workouts in between.

Girls’ self-esteem typically peaks at age 9 and then takes a nosedive, according to recent research from the New York University Child Study Center. Between 20 percent and 40 percent of girls are on a diet by age 10, and by 15, girls are twice as likely to suffer depression as boys.

Fitness programming catering to young girls has increased in recent years, with the highly successful “Girls on the Run” program sprouting in 200 locations nationwide, including at 20 schools in the Sacramento area. Mini Mermaid has reached over 4,500 girls so far and has recently branched off into a “Mama Mermaid” program for women in Santa Cruz and Chula Vista.

The Mini Mermaid program is unique in its ability to foster camaraderie through fitness rather than competition, said Susie Morgan, an Encinita-based licensed marriage and family therapist who helped develop the curriculum. That support can help stave off the mental health issues girls are vulnerable to at that age, mostly relating to body image and perfectionism.

“The way fitness is addressed with the mermaids is extraordinarily healthy,” Morgan said. “It’s just about moving, participating, enjoying and being a part of something. Having healthy movement in your life as well as healthy practices, and being in a group of women that support one another, all those things are extremely valuable in developing a core sense of self.”

After the laps were completed on the Bell blacktop Tuesday, the mini mermaids helped Boynton take questions from a crowd of students who had come to watch. Then they showed Boynton a handshake and group chant that they created. When asked, the girls said running made them feel stronger, and taught them to go at their own pace.

Angilique Madison said the club has helped her daughter Journey Anderson, a fourth-grader at Bell, become more social, and focus more on school, as well as on her health.

“She likes being a part of a group and I’m glad it’s a positive group,” Madison said. “She’s always talking about it ... she beams with pride after she has an accomplishment.”

Boynton said farewell to the Bell Avenue mermaids and continued to San Jose on her own running mission, which will end with a half-marathon in northern Mexico on Wednesday. Seeing the smiles on the girls’ faces is what keeps her going from site to site, she said.

“It’s something we’ve got to invest in,” she said of the program. “If we don’t, we’re going to see school dropout, and massive shaming and bullying ... I want (these girls) to know that they matter.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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