Each quarter, we feature a past participant of the Rising Leaders program in a section we call "Leaders on the Rise." For this installment, we spoke with Amalia Lopez, Director of Operations for Girls on the Run of Montgomery County. Learn about her outstanding work in activating the limitless potential of girls in our community and how she is leading with resiliency and innovation today.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Girls on the Run? You inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident using an experience-based curriculum that integrates running. Can you tell us about your organization’s work in creating mental health supports for children and teens during the pandemic, especially when isolation and loneliness are of major concern?
At Girls on the Run, we use a curriculum that integrates running, but it’s not competitive. It teaches social-emotional learning concepts to girls anywhere from the 3rd through 8th grade. It is volunteer-based. We have a lean staff in the county so all of the direct work with youth is done by trained volunteers.
The curriculum is meant to reach the girls where they are. It talks about topics like choosing healthy friendships, identifying emotions, and using “I” statements. The curriculum was intentionally developed so girls can bring their own experiences to the table. For example, if girls are experiencing bullying, they have a safe space to deal with that. The program isn’t prescriptive. This is especially important now; we talk about self-care, self-talk. It provides a support network of teammates for girls.
The actual content of the curriculum is immediately applicable during the pandemic. Right now, we have girls who may not be seeing their classmates in person, but they do get to see their teammates. The curriculum also takes a focus past interpersonal relationships and gives them opportunities to volunteer in the community. This is proven to help boost self-esteem.
We have also renewed our focus on trauma-sensitive coaching. This whole pandemic experience is super traumatic for youth. We work to prevent triggering experiences; it is a safe space for girls to talk about personal and emotional topics. That focus has given us renewed strength in combatting the current situation.
Our curriculum and our mission are more important now than ever. Our team has been able to be creative and flexible and make the most out of a bad situation. Our community liaisons provide the knowledge-base to find places we can run around the county.
The beautiful thing about a running program is that it’s outside, so it is easy to transition to be physically distant. We have smaller teams now and some programming happens virtually. Any girl who wants to join a team can do so online. We’ve seen huge popularity in our in-person programs right now. I volunteer on Thursdays and it is really inspiring to see the girls integrate their teams into their pandemic-circles. The kids are loving getting offline. They are coming from all of the different schools in the county and meeting different kids they otherwise would not.
A funny story, last week we had a torrential downpour. I put out a feeler email to say, “would anybody feel like getting wet?” And almost every girl immediately responded and said, “we don’t mind getting wet, let’s go!” There was some flooding, but the rain held out, and we found a safe space to run. We had our raincoats on, and it was really meaningful to see the girls so determined to get that in-person component and get out of the house.
Some of the key takeaways you had from the Rising Leaders program were in the areas of skill development, confidence, and relationship-building. Since you completed the program you have been promoted to a big role – Director of Operations. How did the Rising Leaders program and the support from your Executive Director prepare you to step into that?
I have to say, the Rising Leaders program was suggested to me by the Crimsonbridge Foundation. They provided me with a scholarship to do the program. One of their staff, Caitlin Furey, used to work for Girls on the Run. In a way, she was my predecessor. We already had a connection. She had gone through Rising Leaders the year before. I was able to participate due to the support of my Executive Director and the Crimsonbridge Foundation
The program came to me at a pivotal time in my career. I had been with Girls on the Run for around five years. I started off at the entry-level and worked my way up to Program Manager. I was training volunteers, working on the ground, and living the mission. But I was at a place in my career where I was ready to take on more. The Rising Leaders program came in at the perfect time because I was able to develop the skills needed for true leadership and get ready to take that next step.
The skills I learned were directly applicable. The public speaking component helped because at the time I was putting on training for a hundred volunteers at a time. It helped me step up my game. Having all of those skills in my toolbox helped me go out, build connections, and create relationships. I ended up being the social planner for my class and to this day I still send out updates. Being that connector within the class has been a big help. This wide circle, the relationships, they serve as a knowledge base. All of this really set me up.
I was able to take the new skills from the Rising Leaders program, the confidence I built and the relationships, and leverage that for the organization. We were in a place of growth and looking to put more emphasis on our programming staff. I was able to step out and take on more of a leadership role and increased responsibility for things like HR, finance, and program growth.
I was in a unique position to leverage my institutional knowledge and the skill-base I had to completely change my role within the organization. My Executive Director has been a really great mentor to me. We have an honest and open relationship. I was able to come to her and say, ‘I am looking for more. I am ready for the next step, the organization has needs to be filled.’ and the role grew out of that. So, it gave me more legitimacy and increased skillsets for taking on the role.
Being a Rising Leader has helped me during the pandemic with navigating federal disaster relief loans, piloting new programs, trying things out, and re-thinking everything. For example, our largest culminating event of the year is an in-person 5K run. Taking that, transitioning it virtually, all of that has taken a lot of planning and redeveloping our structure.
All of the girls are looking forward to the 5K and it is a lot of work for them to prepare. If you’re in the third grade, you have short little legs! It is really encouraging to see how determined they are. One girl in the program, her dad quit smoking cigarettes so he could run with his daughter. Our virtual 5K is November 21 and 22 and anyone can participate. You get a Girls on the Run t-shirt and cowbell to cheer on the participants. All of our in-person teams will meet at their local parks at a designated time. We are giving the volunteers colorful hairspray, sidewalk chalk to write names and signage. We are making sure it is as much of a celebration as possible for all of the girls.
Logistically and operationally, the 5K has been a huge challenge. But we are going to bring together the community to run, “together-but-separate.” We are going to be live-streaming the finish line on social media to promote the girls and everything they have been putting into it.
Details on how to get involved with the Girls on the Run Montgomery County 5K Your Way: https://www.girlsontherunofmoco.org/5K-Detail.
What are some ways you are keeping your spirits up -- and those of you team – through these life-altering times?
I have been getting out and running. That is what has been getting me through COVID. It helps me clear my head. I like to get out on trails, and I run all over Northwest DC - I have my bandana on and I try to stay away from people! Staying active helps, as well as getting outside and doing Yoga. Also taking time to connect with family and friends in safe ways. All of that has helped me.
I also have to say my Girls on the Run team has helped me tremendously. We all have a renewed commitment to the mission. I started working for Girls on the Run because I had a deep personal connection. I don’t know any girl who hasn’t struggled with self-esteem, especially in elementary and middle school years. I was somebody who actually quit competitive sports because I wasn’t into the overly competitive nature. Running was something I could do to push myself.
There is something special about this season. We are working completely remotely, so getting together with my group of girls is something I really look forward to on Thursday evenings. It has given me a renewed passion and commitment to what we are doing. Seeing their laughter, seeing them running with their masks on, working extra-hard. It makes it all worth it. That is what it takes. It has been a really big driving force for me.
For our team, we do team-lunches, order Door Dash or Uber eats, and put in times for social connections beyond work. A lot of our work happens outside of the normal 9 to 5. There is a lot of variety, so taking flexibility to another level with the entire team has been important. Avoiding meeting times where people have parenting conflicts is important. We looked at all of our staff with families, and children, and commutes and decided to sublet our office. One of the early LGW Rising Leaders program talks was about having flexibility with your staff. Rigid meetings don’t work for anybody. That flexibility has taken the unnecessary weight off of staff.
Learn more about the Girls on the Run here.
Special thanks to the Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund for scholarships in support of Rising Leaders from the nonprofit sector.
LGW is holding an info session for the Class of 2021 on January 12. Register here.