There's a runner inside Isabella Manzanares. The 10-year-old hears her voice whenever she feels her body surrendering to the Las Vegas heat, nagging her to stop in her tracks and quit this running thing for good.
That's when she starts uttering aloud, regardless of who's around, "I will be fit and healthy, I will be fit and healthy, I will be fit and healthy." She repeats it all the way to the finish line, listening to and believing the runner inside her.
It's a little habit she picked up at Girls on the Run of Las Vegas, a nonprofit prevention program for girls between third and fifth grades that costs $150 to participate. The prevention aspect targets many things, mostly giving up. Giving up on the 5K race that completes the program, giving up on dreams, self-respect, everything that can turn a bright young girl like Isabella into an unfortunate statistic.
She and the other 15 Girls on the Run participants have gathered at Sunset Park today to run the 5K race for which they've been training the past 10 weeks. About 130 other runners - kids, parents and just supportive members of the community - have registered to run right along with them.
If the program completes its mission, this will be the first of many races the girls run in life, and one of the few that requires sneakers. The true challenge lies in making young girls realize their full potential. Once that's accomplished, they'll run so fast from goal to goal, nothing will be able to catch them. Not bullying, not sexting, not eating disorders, not even their own negative thoughts. And those have a way of sneaking up on a girl.
According to Dove Research, only 11 percent of girls feel comfortable using the word "beautiful" to describe themselves. I'd be willing to bet the adjectives that roll off their tongues are as flattering as the '80s. Little girls in Las Vegas probably keep an especially vast vernacular of self-venom. That's what happens when you live in a town where highway billboards feature images most convenience stores keep behind counters.
It sends a message. Beauty is as Industrial Road does.
It's no wonder Girls on the Run coaches had to explain to girls early on that they weren't there to lose weight. They were just there to be healthy. Even then, heads tilted.
A few exercises in, they got the hang of what the outside world recognizes as self-esteem. Girls chose positive ways to describe themselves.
They identified traits that made them different - "I speak another language" - as good things that make them individuals. They learned they deserve to be treated kindly and started by treating each other kindly.
Words of support could be heard as the girls and coaches took to the track twice a week. Whether it was 10 laps or 20, the girls motivated each other to keep going. It got Isabella in the habit of encouraging herself. Be it a 5K race or a math test, she now tells herself aloud that she can reach the finish line.
Elaine Coello volunteers as a coach for the program. She herds the girls together before the race starts at Sunset Park while her son trails behind her. As an employee of the state's welfare office, Coello knows the importance of a girl's self-esteem.
"I see girls who are 13 having babies because no one told them, 'You're OK,' " she says.
Coello is also the mother to an 18-year-old daughter and can't help but note the differences in raising her two kids. Her daughter harbored heavy self-criticism, where her son exudes self-assurance. As if by design, the young boy stands beside his mom, wearing a T-shirt that punctuates her point. In big letters across his torso are the words "I'm pretty much one of the best people I know."
If only more girls felt that way. On this Sunday morning, Isabella is well on her way.
She finishes her final lap with a sweaty forehead, her shirt sticking to her skin. When she catches her breath, she has one thing to say, "It felt good."
There's more than just a runner inside Isabella. There's a beautiful, confident, successful woman, too. If she keeps giving herself positive messages to counteract the negative ones society gives her daily, she's certain to find her. For young girls today, that's the ultimate finish line.
For more information on Girls on the Run, log onto girlsontherunlv.org.
Contact columnist Xazmin Garza at email@example.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.