HOPEWELL: Running group combats toxic masculinity through 5K run

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On the blacktop of Hopewell Elementary School, Jay Petrillo writes on his clipboard, greeting the boys who arrive with their backpacks and water bottles, ready for the three-mile run ahead of them.

Petrillo is a coach for Hopewell Elementary’s Let Me Run team, which will have their second annual 5K run on June 2. The team is part of Let Me Run, an organization whose goal is to promote physical and emotional health for boys in 4th through 8th grade.

The nonprofit, which is now active in 30 states plus D.C., was founded in 2009 by Ashley Armistead of Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a press release. A runner herself and a mom of two boys, Armistead grew tired of those around her dismissing negative behavior as the “boys will be boys” mentality.

To fight this, Armistead reached out to Harvard Medical School professor and author of “Real Boys” William Pollack, who assisted her in jumpstarting what would become Let Me Run, according to officials.

Petrillo said he started in the program as “an excuse to run,” but realized the organization was more than just a running group. “I fell in love with the lessons and tools that we’re teaching the boys,” he said.

Each practice begins with the day’s “words to live by.” This time, it’s “success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”

In Central New Jersey, there are currently 12 local schools that have Let Me Run teams, including four in the Hopewell-Pennington area.

In the fall of 2012, the first Hopewell team was established after a similar program, Girls on the Run, was brought to the area by Laura Smelas-Jackson, the Let Me Run Central New Jersey Regional Director.

“When we were looking for a program to start at Hopewell Elementary, she was the first [person] I went to and asked, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’” Program Coordinator Michelle Brennan said.

Brennan and Smelas-Jackson both have two sons — 8 and 12, and 17 and 20 — and wanted to spread the positive message Let Me Run provides.

“The curriculum is so strong, it’s very dynamic for the boys,” Smelas-Jackson said. “They’re training for a 5k, but also learning how to be a good friend and [how] it’s okay to have more than one emotion.”

Brennan added that the curriculum of the program encourages the boys to embrace who they are as individuals.

“I think this is the perfect time to spread this message,” she said. “Helping us give the boys the tools and the knowledge in order for them to be the best version of themselves only helps all the women who are also in their lives — their sisters, their mothers, their future partners, their friends — to understand them and give them the skills they need to form meaningful relationships.”

In the age of “locker room talk” and the #MeToo movement, the press release said, those involved with Let Me Run hope to set a positive example for the future generation.

As mothers, Smelas-Jackson and Brennan hope that their sons don’t feed into the “be a man” message males of all ages are susceptible to.

“I would ask [my son], ‘how many times were you told ‘stop crying’ or ‘suck it up?’” Brennan said. “They hear it all the time. We want to be part of the group that breaks that pattern.”

For Petrillo, he grew up hearing positive messages surrounding masculinity, and hopes to pass that on to the boys he coaches.

“I hope [the boys] continue to use these lessons and the advice that we give through life and spread it out to other boys too,” he said.

According to an independent study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the Let Me Run program “significantly improves boys’ attitudes and behaviors associated with healthy masculinity, increases boys’ vigorous physical activity levels, reduces boys’ screen time on school days and increases boys’ social competence.”

“By the end of the season, they’re much more of a team; they’re supportive of each other, they get along better,” Petrillo said. “I’ve also seen a change in my own son and how he deals with conflicts and things outside of Let Me Run, and I can see that he’s picked up on some things.”

For Brennan and Smelas-Jackson, one of the most rewarding moments came from an e-mail from a mother whose son, despite his physical challenges and Autism diagnosis, wanted to join the team.

“The season was tough for him,” Brennan said, and the boy fell during the race. With the remainder of the boys wondering where their teammate was, the group went out to find their “missing link.” 45 minutes later, Brennan said, the boys turned the corner with their teammate and finished the race together.

“The most fulfilling moments aren’t the times a boy crosses a finish line, it’s about the bonds that you see them make in the team,” she said.

The Let Me Run program costs $120 for seven weeks of training and includes the 5k run cost. Scholarships are available. The 5k run on June 2 is open to the public.