Group of women from Parkdale Roadrunners holding up medals

Photography by Parkdale Roadrunners

“In the running group, everybody always has your back.”

How the Parkdale Roadrunners helped newcomer girls run their first big race—and make strides in their lives.

Eighteen-year-old Trisha Jane Barretto, a newcomer to Canada from the Philippines, will never forget the buzz of running her first 5K race at the 2017 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. “There were a lot of people at the side with boards shouting, ‘Come on guys, you can do it!’” she says. “I was so proud of myself and my friends at the finish line.” Just three months earlier, Barretto couldn’t have imagined feeling such euphoria in her new home city—let alone having an entire girl group of friends.

While today Barretto speaks English fluently, in sentences peppered with like, she barely spoke the language when she moved to Toronto in 2015. And when classmates mocked her early attempts, she shut down. “I was afraid to speak to anybody, and I used to come home after school and just sleep,” she recalls. “It was hard having no friends and having no fun. I only had my sister.”

But after two years of feeling invisible, Barretto had had enough. “I wanted to push myself to try some new things,” she says. So she signed up for a girls’ leadership program for newcomers at West Neighbourhood House, a multi-service United Way agency and neighbourhood centre in downtown Toronto’s west end.

As part of the program, she was invited to join the My First Race running program, created in partnership with women from a local running crew, the Parkdale Roadrunners. Saying ‘yes’ was the bravest thing she’d done in a long time. “The first day was a big struggle; I was breathing so hard when I ran,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even do one kilometre.”

Group of women in running attire before a sunrise

But that’s the beauty of running: It gets you outside your comfort zone. And the next thing you know, you’re bonding with fellow runners on the hard stretches, and high-fiving them at the end of a good training run.

Anya Taraboulsy is one of the 14 Parkdale Roadrunners who volunteered as coaches for the clinic, which changed the course of 12 girls’ lives. She learned about West Neighbourhood House and its leadership program in May 2017, when the Parkdale Roadrunners were researching local projects to support with funds they had raised running the Ragnar Relay, a 304-km relay race from Cobourg, Ont., to Niagara Falls. “We were looking for a charity that had the same values as we do,” she says.

After connecting with staff at West Neighbourhood House, the Parkdale crew was impressed with their work around community and inclusion. They also learned there been interest from the youth there in starting a running group. (Some of the girls had volunteered on a cheering squad at the Scotiabank Marathon and wondered what it would feel like to leave the sidelines.) So the Roadrunners saw the opportunity to go one step further than giving cash, and stepped up to become these young women’s coaches.

“One of the Parkdale Roadrunners mottos is ‘No one left behind,’” Taraboulsy says. And to the newbie runners from Latin America, Eritrea and the Philippines, that meant a whole lot more than knowing someone would keep pace beside them on a slow day. It meant being seen, cared for and supported—things they weren’t always experiencing in their daily lives, especially those who had immigrated without family. “In school if there’s a person who’s alone, people just ignore them,” says Kia Ungab, another teen participant of the My First Race program. “In the running group, everybody always has your back.”

Group of women from Parkdale Roadrunners stretching in a park

The girls and their coaches met for 15 weeks each Wednesday evening to do group runs and focus on isolated skills like speed, stamina and momentum. The Parkdale Roadrunners also brought in female guest speakers such as a nutritionist who talked about how to fuel for a race and a professional and award-winning trail runner who shared training tips, says Taraboulsy. “When you meet strong, powerful, confident women, you learn to feel that way about yourself as well.”

The teen girls thrived on this mentorship. “The coaches were really nice and they gave us running advice and stuff,” says Ungab. “Sometimes they gave us advice about school as well.” And the 17-year-old said the most important thing she learned from them was how to honour her priorities and manage her time. “The coaches were all busy with their jobs and their lives, but for some reason they all found time to run.”

West Neighbourhood House Youth Newcomer Settlement Worker Yasmin Moursalien was thrilled to see how motivated the girls were to meet up with the Parkdale Runners. “We’d recently cancelled our co-ed sports program because of low attendance,” she says. “Hardly any girls were showing up—they weren’t into fitness and exercise. So seeing 12 girls show up every single week in their running gear, being like ‘I can’t wait to run,’—and hearing those conversations that were happening as friendships were forming—was something that really stuck with me.”

A favourite discussion topic for the teens was food. Early on, they started a tradition of treating themselves to Tibetan momos after training. And sometimes the girls would hang out and eat together at one another’s houses or get together in pairs to put in extra runs. Ungab noticed that her newfound confidence and language skills made things much easier for her the next semester at school. “I’m more open to people,” she says. “I’m not shy any more.”

Large Parkdale Roadrunners group holding medals before Toronto sign

Come October 2017, the young women were ready to compete in their first 5K. This time they invited other teens to cheer them on from the West Neighbourhood House stage. “Everyone finished the race,” says Moursalien. “The time range was 26 to 34 minutes, so these girls absolutely nailed it.”

But the finish line wasn’t really an ending—the girls have forged enduring friendships and still socialize together. Also, so many West Neighbourhood House boys begged to join the running group that in 2018, it was opened up to all newcomer teens. The girls who participated in 2017 are now peer leaders. “They help pick the routes and run the circuit training,” says Moursalien. “These girls lead the pack.”