What started six years ago as a small running club at a single school for students who are on probation, is now helping students at a handful of other school sites, including several for youth who are incarcerated.
San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) Teacher Cindy Stallo started the running program at Reflections Central School in La Mesa along with a probation officer at the school.
SDCOE partners with the county to provide schooling to students who are incarcerated, on probation, or in county rehabilitation programs.
The students in the running program train and run races with teachers, counselors, and probation officers.
"I am extremely grateful for this opportunity," said one of the students. "It has been liberating and truly gratifying. I can't wait for the next run!"
Over the last year or so, the county's Probation and Behavioral Health Services departments have helped to push the program to a much larger scale, combining it with running clubs at other facilities.
For this effort to create and grow the running clubs and expand opportunities for students, Stallo and four county employees recently received a customer service award from the County of San Diego.
The running program provides students with mentorship, guidance, positive experiences, and a self-esteem boost, said Mindy
McCartney, division chief for Probation.
"This collaboration has proven tremendously beneficial to the youth who participate as they develop a love for running that they did not have before," McCartney said. "The look of pride on the faces of the runners as they cross the finish line is indescribable."
The experience also teaches students the value and joy of following through on a difficult goal and gives them a healthy outlet to blow off steam, Stallo said. The emotional and mental benefits are just as great as the more obvious physical benefits, she added.
"The kids in our programs, they've been through so much trauma that running is a really good outlet, and running is an outlet that they can continue as adults," Stallo said. "It's beneficial throughout their life."
With the expansion of the program, students can now continue running with the club if they change school sites. Stallo is working with Probation officials to put together a plan that will allow students to continue running with some of the organizers even when they're no longer incarcerated.
Many of the students have even come back to train and race after they've released from detention or probation.
The last race they ran was the San Diego Half Marathon and 5K in March, when 11 students participated from three SDCOE sites. All of the students finished the runs.
Irene Dominguez provides therapy to students with special needs at SDCOE's San Diego SOAR Academy in the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Center. She volunteered to train twice a week with three girls from the center who participated in the March race.
"It was great seeing them out in the community participating in a healthy activity and getting to be kids," Dominguez said. "I am so proud of how hard they work and how supportive they are of one another.”
The next race planned for the running program is the La Jolla Half Marathon and 5K April 23, which is expected to include more students from more school sites.