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Denise Wagner, APRN, (left) a YNHH pediatric nurse practitioner, recently talked with students in the Girls on the Run program at New Haven’s Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School. Wagner, who staffs Mauro-Sheridan’s School-Based Health Center (SBHC), introduced the program to help build girls’ confidence and teach them important life skills. She gets help running the weekly after-school sessions from teachers and Sarah Vaughan, APRN, (right), a nurse practitioner at another SBHC. 


Thanks to YNHH nurse, Girls on the Run program takes off at local school

“Girls!” Denise Wagner, APRN, shouted.

“Run!” thirteen girls yelled in response.

“Girls!”

“Run!”

Three more times their jubilant shouts carried across a field at New Haven’s Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

The girls, in grades 3 through 5, were echoing the name of a program Wagner, a Yale New Haven Hospital pediatric nurse practitioner, introduced after joining Mauro-Sheridan’s School-Based Health Center last year. Called Girls on the Run, the national program uses interactive lessons and physical activity to help build girls’ confidence and teach them important life skills. What kinds of life skills? 

“To be stronger!” said one Mauro-Sheridan participant. 

“To be kind,” said another. 

“To believe in yourself more often.”

“To compromise.” 

“To work together.”

Carla Giles, manager of Children’s Community Programs at YNHH, said she was delighted to support the Girls on the Run program at Mauro-Sheridan, having facilitated similar programs with Wagner at YNHH’s Hillhouse High School-Based Health Center in the early 1990s.

With its emphasis on physical health and emotional well-being, Girls on the Run complements the School-Based Health Center’s (SBHC’s) care and services, Wagner said. 

“The program teaches them resilience and coping skills,” she said. “This is especially important now, in light of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on children’s mental health.”

Each after-school Girls on the Run session includes, of course, running. The girls are preparing for the Fairfield 5K Road Race June 4 at Jennings Beach. Each session also focuses on a different theme, such as self-confidence, exploring emotions and compromise. After a session on different communities– such as school, neighborhoods and others – the students wrote down ideas on how to help those communities. They would later choose one of those ideas for a community impact project. 

Wagner gets help with the Girls on the Run sessions from volunteers Sarah Vaughan, APRN, a fellow YNHH pediatric nurse practitioner from the Hillhouse High School SBHC, and Mauro-Sheridan teachers Darla Lank and Lauren Bitterman. Bitterman, who teaches fourth grade, said the program has had a “huge” impact on the participating students.

“Their nutrition is better; their confidence is better; their behavior is better,” she said. “Between March and now, they’ve become stronger. They’re more aware of themselves. And they listen to each other.”

These are the kinds of changes Wagner hoped for. She previously worked at YNHH’s Pediatric Primary Care Center for 25 years, mostly with adolescents. When the opportunity at the Mauro-Sheridan SBHC opened up, she decided to go for it. 

"I felt I could make a bigger impact with the younger kids and help them make good decisions while they are young,” she said. “I want them to feel empowered.”
If the feedback from the Girls on the Run participants is any indication, Wagner has succeeded. Asked what the program has taught her, one student replied, “I learned to believe in myself more often.”

YNHH operates school-based health centers at five New Haven and three Branford schools. Staffed by advanced practice nurse practitioners and social workers, these satellite clinics provide preventive and immediate medical care, along with counseling, health education and other services at schools. To learn more, visit School-Based Health Centers.