Leslie Littlejohn refuses to sugarcoat the truth.
She says she was a fat kid, and she admits it was rough. She struggled with self-esteem issues. She battled eating disorders as a teenager.
“I had to work very hard to become OK with me,” the married mother of three says now.
Littlejohn wants to help Oklahoma girls avoid the difficulty she went through. That's why she started the Oklahoma County chapter of Girls on the Run, a national organization that strives to foster confidence and build a sense of accomplishment in girls through physical activity. That's why she has big dreams for the group, too.
Girls on the Run is almost 20 years old and can be found in more than 200 cities across the United States, but for years, it was nowhere to be seen in Oklahoma.
That changed because of Littlejohn.
A few years ago, she saw Girls on the Run in action in Kalamazoo, Mich. She was born there, and her sister still lives in the city of 75,000, which has a huge Girls on the Run program. It's so ingrained in the community that it's a foregone conclusion that every girl in Kalamazoo will do Girls on the Run at some point in elementary or middle school.
Littlejohn's niece has done it for three years.
“She has loved every minute,” Littlejohn said.
But more than that, the girl has been changed by the experience.
“She blossomed and has gained so much confidence,” Littlejohn said. “I wouldn't have believed it if she weren't my niece.”
The program for third through eighth graders works this way: a group of a dozen or so girls meets once a week for 10 to 12 weeks. During their meetings, an adult coach leads them in discussions about all sorts of issues and problems that they'll face, then leads them through physical activities designed to help them cope.
Peer pressure, for example, is among the issues that they address. After discussing it, the girls do a group run where they're told to listen to their inner voice, running at their own pace instead of trying to keep up with someone else, going too fast and wearing themselves out.
When they've finished the entire program, the girls do a 5K to celebrate what they've accomplished and to confirm what they've learned.
When Littlejohn saw the way her niece grew through Girls on the Run, she knew Oklahoma needed the program. This is a state, after all, with one of the worst childhood obesity rates in the United States, a problem that Littlejohn sees firsthand as a teacher in the Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Littlejohn started her first Girls on the Run group two years ago at the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma City.
Last year, she moved the group to Horace Mann Elementary, where she teaches, and added a second group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Edmond.
Eventually, she'd love a site to be available for every girl who wants to participate.
“I have mothers who contact me weekly wanting to get their daughters involved ... ” Littlejohn said, “and I just do not have teams or coaches available yet.”
She has big dreams for Girls on the Run, so big that she's leaving her teaching job later this year to focus all of her attention on the program. One day, she wants to have a hundred or more teams in the Oklahoma County area, which also includes Lincoln, Logan, Cleveland and Canadian counties.
Going from two to a hundred is a huge jump, and Littlejohn knows that it's a move that won't happen overnight. So, this year's goal is to expand to six teams.
To do that, she needs adults who are willing to help. Finding coaches is her biggest hurdle. If she has more coaches, she can have more groups for more girls.
And she believes more groups would be a great thing for girls who battle some of the same things she did.
Littlejohn was running with one of the girls during the program-ending 5K last spring. They were nearing the finish line when the girl turned to Littlejohn.
“You said I could do it,” the girl said. “I wasn't sure, but you were right.
“Now, I can do anything!”
Littlejohn is now a runner who is currently training for a half marathon. She has overcome all of those demons from her childhood, but she believes that had Girls on the Run been available when she was a girl, it would've helped her completely avoid body issues and self-esteem problems.
“I know that if I would have had the tools or heard some of the lessons from (Girls on the Run),”she said, “I would have been better about making choices that made me happy.”
She wants Oklahoma girls to have an opportunity that she never did.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.