For anyone who worries kids spend too much time watching TV, playing video games or staring at their smartphones, St. Louis streets Nov. 12 will paint a different picture. Two local running groups geared toward raising confidence and self-esteem will showcase their talents in 5Ks that day.

Girls on the Run, which targets girls in third to eighth grade, will transform downtown into a race site and dance party for its 5K race, which has become the largest timed 5K in Missouri and the 10th largest in the U.S. Let Me Run, created for boys in fourth through eighth grades, is participating in the Race For Home 5K in Tower Grove Park.

While the two programs are not connected, their missions are similar. “Our goal is to help boys be accepting of themselves and others, set goals and lead a healthy lifestyle,” says Let Me Run regional director Monica Wohlberg. “Our program uses running as a platform to introduce and counteract negative pressures boys face and help them build healthy relationships.”

Let Me Run is relatively new compared to the well-established Girls on the Run. In three years, Let Me Run has had 70 teams and worked with 668 boys in the St. Louis area—numbers it expects to keep climbing as more focus is put on expanding the program.

Ken Poling and his team

St. Louis has become a model branch for the Girls on the Run program, boasting 40,000 participants in the past 14 years. “It’s truly become a Girl on the Run movement,” says Courtney Berg, executive director of Girls on the Run St. Louis. “It’s a local movement of embracing healthy, confident girls and women.”

Just as the Read, Right, Run Marathon sponsored by Go! St. Louis has encouraged kindergartners through fifth-graders to get active in school and in their communities since 2001, Let Me Run and Girls on the Run seek to reach beyond fitness.

As Berg watches the news these days, she says she is still concerned with the images and stereotypes thrust on girls. “Unfortunately our girls are continuing to receive messages that put them in the ‘girl box,’” Berg says. “They internalize that and think they have to look and act a certain way. It stunts their growth and their emotional self-esteem. It’s not safe for them or our communities, and it will not help create the strong leaders we need. We have received affirmation that there remains a major need for this program.”

As kids dive into the running programs, bonds are being created that even inspire the adults leading them.

Ken Poling, a fourth-grade teacher at Daniel Boone Elementary, has never liked running, but he volunteered to help coach the Let Me Run program at his school because of the program’s ideals. Watching the boys around him determined and passionate to improve, Poling joined in on the workouts and finished his first 5K with the kids cheering him on last spring. “As long as our students push themselves, I’m willing to do the same,” Poling says. “I was a 5XL, and the shirt Let Me Run sent at the beginning of the season was a tight 3XL. I tried many times to wear it and be part of the team at practices throughout the spring, but it was not going to fit. I finally quit trying. On race day, I just happened to try again, and it fit. All that hard work paid off.”

While the fall seasons for Let Me Run and Girls on the Run conclude with the upcoming 5Ks, both programs are preparing to open their coaching searches for the spring and hope to add new teams to their lists. The seasons last about 10 weeks and involve trained coaches and weekly practices. Volunteers are always needed.

As Girls on the Run prepares to celebrate its 15th year in 2017, Berg says they are seeing alums return to coach teams of their own—further proof the program is helping develop tomorrow’s leaders. “We know setting a goal and reaching it is critical for girls at this age,” Berg says. “This is important work. Yes, it is fun and joyful, but it truly matters.”

Pictured: Participants in a Girls on the Run 5K in May