Like the runners she coaches, Taelor Johnson started out slow.
Johnson, a junior in exercise and sports science, is a volunteer with local nonprofit Running Forward, leading 30 to 50 children in an after-school program at Franklin Elementary School. She learned about the organization through the U’s Bennion Service Center. Johnson said she initially liked it because of the once-a-week time commitment, but she soon found herself volunteering more and more.
A year and a half later, Johnson is in line to become the organization’s program manager next school year.
“My experience so far has been one of a lifetime,” Johnson said. “Running Forward is not just an after-school program. It’s kind of like our own community.”
U alumni Jake Franklin and John Asher started Running Forward originally as a student service project at Mountain View Elementary School in 2009. It has achieved nationally registered nonprofit status and now operates in seven Title I elementary schools throughout Salt Lake City, offering mentoring and life skills to more than 150 4th-6th graders as they train for an annual 5K on the U’s campus.
Kortnie Walker, current program manager, said their biggest goal is providing mentors for kids who may not have one in their life.
“We’re trying to teach them goal-setting habits and teach them that real people in their lives go to college,” Walker said. “We try to show them that higher education is possible for them and give them the skills to make that happen.”
The majority of volunteers are undergraduate students at the U, along with a few high school and medical students. They host weekly running clinics and practices each Friday, as well as short lessons on topics ranging from physical and mental health to college preparedness. Walker said volunteers fill a particularly important role in many participants’ lives.
“We have kids that we see graduate from our program when they reach sixth grade and then come back as volunteers” Walker said. “They’ve seen that role and now they want to fill it as role models, which is really our ultimate goal.”
Running Forward also looks to build confidence and help participants realize their potential for long-term growth. Students set a mile-time goal at the beginning of the season and work with coaches throughout the year to achieve it.
“The biggest thing they take away from this is that they can do whatever they set their minds to,” Johnson said. “Getting them to their mile time and seeing the smile on their faces is really special.”