For so many Vermonters, it’s a simple enough concept: put skis on car, drive, ski; pick up basketball, go to rec field, shoot some hoops; sign up for summer camp, go canoeing, hiking, the works.
But for hundreds of girls in the Green Mountain State, it’s far more complex. They can’t afford skis; their parents have no car. They’re too shy to dribble around a court. Paddling among the woods of Canada might as well be the wilds of Siberia.
Enter the Stride Foundation, a groundbreaking program for girls begun 10 years ago by Ferrisburgh’s Leslie Wright. By providing elementary schoolers the opportunity to Alpine and Nordic ski; pairing middle school basketball teams with women’s college teams; and by sponsoring campers at Keewaydin on Ontario’s Lake Temagami, Stride is creating not only budding athletes, but more confident women, tomorrow’s leaders.
“I never thought I’d be running programs for girls in sports—I had a whole different vision,” says Wright. “But as it turns out, we’ve met needs; we’ve made an impact.”
Stride began as an Olympic effort—literally. During the Sydney 2000 Games, Nike aired a commercial that featured middle-distance champion Suzy Favor Hamilton outrunning a scary, horror-film attacker revving a chainsaw. The ad, eventually cancelled, raised the ire of many, including Wright.
“I was so enraged that a company could portray a world-class female athlete as a victim of violence,” says Wright, who was kidnapped and assaulted herself while training in New Hampshire at age 17. “If there was a woman involved in the making of that ad, why wasn’t she empowered enough to say, ‘This isn’t a good idea; this isn’t going to get the market you want.’”
In some “pissed-off” correspondence with Nike, Wright threatened to start a foundation—which is just what she did in 2001. She founded Stride, which was initially intended to give grants to girls’ sports programs. But soon Wright found that there weren’t many mentoring programs, and so through Stride created Sisters in Sport, which initially paired the Middlebury Union Middle School seventh-grade basketball team with the Middlebury College women’s basketball team. (There is now a similar mentoring program between Winooski Middle School and St. Michael’s College.)
It turns out that was just the beginning.
In January 2002 came Snow Stars, partnering the Alpine Shop and the Middlebury Snow Bowl’s ski school to get underprivileged girls out on the slopes; that would be followed by a similar Nordic program at Rikert Ski Touring in the winter of 2006–2007. Then in 2007, Stride began partnering with Keewaydin Temagami to bring Vermont campers to a wilderness canoe camp in Ontario.
“It was kind of weird that I started with basketball, because I don’t play basketball,” says Wright, who works full time as the public relations and marketing manager for the Shelburne Museum. “But it seemed to have fewer moving pieces, logistically, than the ski programs.”
Now, the moving parts are the athletes themselves. To date, 784 girls and mentors have been served by Stride, with story after story of newfound friendship, confidence, and fun happening on the snow, court, and lake.
“The Stride Foundation, and Leslie, are wonderful,” says Marilyn Shores, a Middlebury resident and grandmother of Rachael Carter, 15, who has attended Keewaydin three times thanks to Stride. “It has given (Rachael) experience outside of her environment—for the first time, she got to fly. And it gave her some confidence; she was shy when she started out, but she gained some people skills.”
In Granville, Tammi Beattie reports similar results for her daughter, Ella, 10, who has learned to Alpine ski through Stride, and has formed a valuable bond with her Middlebury College mentor. “Her confidence has really grown,” says Beattie, “not just as a skier but as a girl—she can do anything she can set her mind to.”
Stride’s official mission is “to enhance and promote the advancement of female athletes in society.” And when it comes to women, sports, and leadership, there’s still a ways to go, says Wright, both nationally and in Vermont. “Eight percent of athletic directors at colleges are female,” she reports. “In Vermont, women earn 80 percent on the dollar compared to men. It’s Title IX’s 40th anniversary and women’s sports are still on the chopping block at a lot of schools. There are still battles to fight.”
But it’s hard not to see success in the gleam of a young girl’s eye as she spots her mentor across a crowded ski lodge, or hears cheers from collegiate athletes as she aims for the basket.
“When I was a kid, the Jogbra wasn’t even invented,” says Wright. “But sports have always been my center of strength, where I go to deal with stress and handle problems. Sports have given me so much in terms of my ability to succeed as a person. The idea was that the foundation would provide opportunities for girls and women in sports so they can reach their potential, be contributing members of society, and maybe next time they go to make that Nike ad, the women will stand up and say ‘No.’”