BY KAREN MARTIN

Special Sections editor

When Lisa Warm was in the third grade, she had never heard words like abuse or rape.

Today, sadly, many young girls have not only heard the words, some have felt the pain.

Warm helps them talk about it and figure out what to do with their feelings.

It’s just one part of her job as a volunteer coach for Girls on the Run, a program where, yes, girls do run, but they also learn a lot about life and themselves.

“It’s a program to educate and empower girls, starting at a young age, and to help with things like peer pressure, bullying, living healthy and taking care of yourself mentally and physically,” says Warm. “It’s a program that teaches them to be independent women and productive members of society, and it incorporates running on top of that.”

That’s a lot to ask from a program where the girls meet twice a week for 10 weeks. But it works, says Warm, who is coaching her third season at The Dufrocq School, an elementary school on South 19th Street.

“We have some girls who are back for the second or third time,” she says. “I’ve noticed the ones who were very timid and unsure, who were not participating in group discussions, who were lollygagging when we were running now raise their hands first. They participate in every activity, they’re our top runners. It’s amazing to see.”

And, yes, they do talk about things like abuse and rape.

“It breaks my heart,” says Warm, “because they know what it is and have been exposed to it.”

Warm says through the program the girls are taught how to address such issues.

“My kids,” she says, referring to the third through fifth graders, “are encouraged to interact and speak up.”

And, she says, they surprise her.

“For our community project, they wanted to help crack kids on the street,” she says, her love and awe for these girls obvious.

And they’re off

Hydie Wahlborg started Girls on the Run here in 2009 and isn’t surprised that this coach is getting as much as the girls out of the program.

Wahlborg has seen it and felt it herself. Her daughter Cary, now 14, was a Girl on the Run.

“We’ve had some really profound discussions in our own home because of it,” says Wahlborg.

Girls on the Run Greater Baton Rouge has grown from 24 girls in two schools that first year to almost 500 girls in 26 public and private schools this year.

Wahlborg says the program, which is increasing by about 50 percent each year, is taking a major step forward with a new name and new territory.

“We’re expanding to include Lafayette and Acadiana, so we’ll be Girls on the Run of South Louisiana,” Wahlborg says.

Lessons learned

Twice a week the girls, in teams of 8 to 15, gather after school with their coaches for 90 minutes. The lessons focus on life skills, from gossiping and bullying to body image, Wahlborg says.

“We try to make the girls aware of how they speak to themselves, their inner talk,” she says. “There’s so much pressure to be everything for everybody, so we talk about how to change that inner voice … Many of these girls have never been presented with the idea that they have a choice about what they’re saying to themselves.”

Physical activity is built into the lesson plan “through relays, or playing chase or in some other fun way,” says Wahlborg.

Week by week the girls get stronger and can run longer.

They celebrate the end of the season with a 5k run, most recently held May 4 at Pennington Biomedical Research Center on Perkins Road.

“You should see them light up when they realize they can do it,” says Wahlborg. “Some might struggle, but they complete it. Everybody finishes. Or at least they have every time so far.”

The girls are not alone in their success. The coaches, many of whom have never run before, also celebrate.

Rebecca Coursey is an assistant coach at Runnels, where her 9-year-old daughter Kaylee belongs to the team. She joined a year before her mom got involved.

“Kaylee would come home and I’d hear about the lessons they learned, like ‘plugging in her positive cord,’” says Coursey.

The first time she watched a Girls 5K, Coursey says she was amazed by her daughter.

“She inspired me,” says Coursey, who was never a runner before. “I can’t do it as fast as she can, but I’ll be out there running.”

Coursey says also really likes that the girls take on a project to help others.

“It’s definitely a big leap for them to think outside themselves. That’s what kids do. But when we talk about giving to others, it opens up the idea that not everybody has it as good, and that other people have things going on in their lives that they might need some help with,” says Coursey. “They get excited about helping others, and that’s good to see.”

Keeping on

Wahlborg sees no end in sight for Girls on the Run. Even if the 50 percent growth rates slows to only 30 percent, Wahlborg says “the numbers will be staggering.”

In the next decade, she says the program could be in as many as 120 schools.

And when Girls on the Run run their 5K, it’s a community event that draws thousands.

“We get amazing support from the community,” says Wahlborg, listing among the sponsors the C.B. and Irene Pennington Foundation, SRS Wealth Management, Varsity Sports and Brooks Running. “And it’s all about the girls and seeing them boldly pursuing their dreams and flourishing in everything they want to do.”