In a time when young girls often grapple with self-doubt and insecurity, a special program is rewriting the script for empowerment. Girls on the Run Memphis is a guiding light for girls seeking inner strength, and it owes much of its magic to dedicated volunteer coaches. Among these inspiring mentors is Coach Jade Ray, who shares a special bond with one participant, 13-year-old Presley Butler. Their relationship is a testament to the transformative power of this initiative.
For two years, Presley has been under Coach Jade’s wing. It’s been a journey marked by personal growth, shared laughter, and life-changing lessons for both.
“She’s just a great coach, a great person in general. She’s always there to ask me how my day was. She gets me. She’s very motivating and inspiring,” Presley said.
Jade’s involvement began with her employer, AutoZone, a Girls on the Run Memphis sponsor. As an internal communications specialist, she had a hand in helping to get the word out about coach recruitment for the program. She shares head-coach duties with Julie Campanaro for the Shelby Farms Park team, training third- through eighth-grade girls every week for two hours.
Girls on the Run Memphis provides a 10-week after-school program focusing on physical activity at various locations across the Mid-South, including public and charter schools and community sites. Shelby Farms is a community site that draws girls from neighborhoods all over the city and meets on weekends.
Participants build competence, confidence, character, empathy, positive connections, and a sense of community. Trained volunteer coaches lead each session, culminating in a 5k event that fosters achievement and goal setting.
Uplifting Girls, One Step at a Time
For these coaches and their participants, Girls on the Run is more than just an after-school running program — it’s a safe haven.
“We can pat ourselves on the back knowing we’ve created a circle where they feel comfortable enough to express themselves,” Jade said.
The program has been a beacon of hope for parents like Diane Butler.
“I think what makes the Shelby Farms site so special is that it includes girls from all over the city that my girls would never meet if it weren’t for Girls on the Run. It’s very diverse. Even the coaches come from all different walks of life,” Diane said.
Both her daughters, Presley and 9-year-old Camden, are returning program participants.
“It’s a space where we can express ourselves. I feel loved and safe. I feel connected and have people I can talk to if I have a bad day. We’re all like sisters,” Camden said.
Since joining, Diane says both girls have really come out of their shells. Presley has become more of a leader and takes time to encourage the other girls. She hopes to be a junior coach once she’s old enough. Junior coaches are high school volunteers aged 16-18 who support the adult coaches and mentor the team.
“When I first started, I wanted to be the fastest on the team or the captain, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about growing as a team and learning as a team. Since joining, I’ve learned to be a better friend, person, and runner,” Presley said.
At the core of Girls on the Run Memphis lies a holistic approach that equips each girl with vital life skills that empower them to resolve conflicts gracefully, extend a helping hand to those in need, make decisions that shape their destinies, navigate the roller coaster of emotions, forge meaningful connections, and cultivate habits that nurture their overall well-being.
The program intervenes at a critical stage of life, nurturing young girls’ confidence when society often challenges it. Coach Julie cites bullying and body shaming as two major issues always on the coaches’ and girls’ minds. To combat that, the coaches promote confidence-building and emphasize embracing their differences.
“These girls are going through such a tough time, and this is a safe space,” Julie said.
Shaping Tomorrow’s Leaders
Since its inception in 2018, Girls on the Run Memphis has brought its social and emotional skill-building program to 1,300 girls at approximately 22 program sites. The U.S. Surgeon General even cited it as a resource that addresses the nation’s mental health crisis among children and adolescents in a public health report earlier this year.
As the organization celebrates its fifth anniversary and the incredible journey it’s been on to get there, program leaders eagerly anticipate the transformative impact that lies ahead.
“I want to see it grow into neighborhoods that don’t have it. It’s all about the support — the outreach, the coaches, the availability — that would allow us to expand. Our programs have the potential, but we don’t have the support yet,” Jade explained.
In its mission to ensure inclusivity for all girls, the program relies on registration fees, donations, sponsorships, and other support, enabling financial assistance to be available for qualifying families. It’s this very need that fuels Jade’s and Julie’s hope for expansion.
“I would love to see us get more sponsors and grow beyond the facilities that we have now. I would love to expand into more areas in the vicinity of Memphis and farther. I feel like there is such a need,” Julie said.
To learn how you can get involved or stay connected with Girls on the Run Memphis, visit GOTRmemphis.org.
By Tomia Lane
Photo by D’Angelo Connell
Left to Right: Jade Ray, Camden Butler, Presley Butler, and Julie Campanaro