Why Girls Gotta Run: Interview with Dr. Patricia E. Ortman

Dr. Patricia E. Ortman, founding member of the Girls Gotta Run Foundation. (Photo by Michelle Mikki Parrish).

Tadias Magazine
By: Martha Z. Tegegn

Published: Thursday, October 29, 2009

Washington, D.C. (TADIAS) – “Why shouldn’t a girl have a pair of sneakers?” That’s the question that Dr. Patricia E. Ortman, a Washington, D.C.-based retired Women’s Studies Professor and artist, posed to herself as she embarked upon the task of raising money for Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), a volunteer organization she helped establish three years ago to provide new shoes for girls in Ethiopia who are training to be runners.

Dr. Ortman was inspired by a 2005 Washington Post article by Emily Wax entitled: Facing Servitude, Ethiopian Girls Run for a Better Life. The piece highlighted the grim realties faced by young girls in Ethiopia, including having one of the lowest rates of female enrollment in primary schools. Young girls in Ethiopia also face one of the highest rates of childbirth injuries in the world. According to the United Nations Population Fund 1 in 27 mothers in Ethiopia face the risk of dying during labor. In comparison, as The Huffington Post notes in the introduction of World Editor Hanna Ingber Win’s Mothers of Ethiopia series, “In the U.S., a woman has a 1 in 4,800 chance of dying from complications due to pregnancy or childbirth in her lifetime.” Perhaps Wax’s most powerful line comes from a 13-year-old girl named Tesdale Mesele who says: “I also run because I want to give priority to my schooling. If I’m a good runner, the school will want me to stay and not be home washing laundry and preparing injera.”

“After reading that article,” Ortman says, “I was faced with two choices: to go “oh well” and go about my life, or to get involved.”

Getting involved she did; she called a couple of friends and expressed her interest in starting a program to help Ethiopian girls stay in school. “Originally” Ortman says, “I wanted to do this as a project, and as people were coming [up to me] and saying they wanted to help, I started calling a lot of international woman organizations.” But the overall lack of interest by these organizations, whose names she would not mention, left Ortman and her friends with little choice but to start Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF).

Despite the obstacles, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Ortman. In recent years, running has emerged as a path to success for many girls in Ethiopia. Female athletes, such as double Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba and her colleague Meseret Defar, are blazing a trail for a new generation of aspiring female runners. Today, some of the highest paid athletes in Ethiopia are women.

“It takes a lot of personal gumption,” says Ortman. “Some of these girls have predetermined lives. Nothing is expected of them but marriage, a lifetime of labor.”

Ortman argues that proper running shoes are the most important gear an aspiring athlete can own to remain healthy. “In some cases, girls are forced to give up on their dream of becoming professional athletes due to injuries caused by lack of proper attire and shoes,” Ortman says. “That’s the big reason why GGRF focuses on sending them money to buy running shoes.”

Asked why GGRF sends the girls money instead of shoes? Ortman answers: “Our goal is not just to help girls to have running shoes. By sending them money we avoid the huge shipping cost, and we also help the Ethiopian economy by allowing them to buy new sneakers from local merchants.”

GGRF has developed creative partnerships with artists and athletes to raise money. The organization hosts several exhibitions annually featuring donated art work, and athletes participate in local meets to raise money. Sheena Dahlke, an athlete who also doubles as the foundation’s Secretary, says she finds it personally rewarding to take part in running competitions to support the young women in Ethiopia. “I see the girls that GGRF supports as intelligent, driven and strong. The girls are also very inspiring. They inspired me to raise money for them while I trained for the Boston Marathon in 2009,” she said. “It was motivating to imagine them training for their races and I wanted to help them to have the resources and equipment that they needed. For them, running is a way to escape poverty and avoid early pregnancy. In many cases it also gives them a chance to continue their education which gives them hope beyond their running careers.”

Today, GGRF sponsors forty girls participating in three teams: Team Tesfa, The Semien Girl Runners, and Team Naftech.


Members of Team Tesfa (Photo by Sarah Murray).


The Simien Girl Runners training in July 2008. (Photo: GGRF).


Menna, program head for Team Tesfa, Olympic medalists Meseret
Defar, and Meseret Birhanu, member of Team Tesfa. (GGRF).

The largest team, Team Tesfa, was founded by Tesfa Foundation, an organization that funds early childhood education for disadvantaged children in Ethiopia. We spoke with Dana Roskey, one of the Directors of Tesfa during his recent trip to Washington D.C. Roskey was the first individual to team up with GGRF to create and oversee the team’s activities in Ethiopia. “The situations for some are really extreme, it is not only a matter of running – it becomes a survival issue,” Mr. Roskey told Tadias. “Assisting them means offering them an opportunity to be leaders of their own life.”

And what is his organization’s relationship with GGRF?

“GGRF covers some of the nutrition, coaching and transportation costs,” he said. “And they are our major gear providers.” But Mr. Roskey is quick to note that running alone cannot be the solution. “Girls are more vulnerable to exploitations and misfortune, and their fate is somewhat limited,” he explained emphasizing his organization’s focus in primary education. “Because ultimately running is not their only destiny, there are other options.”

Garrett Ash, Co-Founder and Director of Running Across Borders (RAB), a non-profit that works to bring economic success to East African youth through running, says GGRF sponsors five of its female runners in Addis Ababa, all of whom come from rural parts of Ethiopia and are selected because they show both talent and passion for long-distance running. “Our first project is focused specifically on Ethiopia and we have established a training facility in the Ayat area of Addis Ababa, which has provided 14 Ethiopian youth (9 male, 5 female) with access to opportunities in athletics, education, and vocational training,” he said. “GGRF provides us with donations that cover food and also transport to training venues like Sulutaa and Sendafa (regions in Ethiopia) for all 5 of the female athletes in our program and these are some of the most significant costs that we face when we add girls to the program, so to have a single foundation that covers these costs for our entire female contingent is a huge asset.”

Ortman agrees with Mr. Roskey that running alone can’t serve as a one-way-ticket to success. “In most cases the girls would be lured to drop out of school and to join [a professional team], and eventually they will get worn out,” says Ortman. “All of the teams have arranged for the girls to go to school and stay in school,” she adds. “If they don’t make it as runners they will have an alternative plan to fall back on.”

Ortman, who has yet to visit Ethiopia, says that the ultimate goal is to empower these children. “We have a pact with the girls that if and when they become successful we expect them to ‘pay up,’ not necessarily to us, but they need to help people in their country – girls who want to follow in their footsteps.”


If you would like to help or join GGRF, you may reach Dr. Patricia Ortman at pat@girlsgottarun.org. Click here for the Foundation’s calendar of events. Check out GGRF’s current art exhibition at Friendship Heights Village Center (4433 South Park Avenue Chevy Chase, Md 20815).

Related:
Video: Conversation with Dr. Patricia E. Ortman About ‘Girls Gotta Run

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12 Responses to “Why Girls Gotta Run: Interview with Dr. Patricia E. Ortman”


  1. 1 Pat Ortman Oct 29th, 2009 at 6:23 am

    Thank You, Martha and Tadias!

    P.

  2. 2 Steve Rogers Oct 29th, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Fabilous! Patricia, you are an amazing and incredible person. What an inspiring and touching story. Only if the world had more people like you who embrace the world with open arms and give with open hearts. I will certainly support GGRF. You will hear from me soon! Thank you Tadias and Matha.

    xoxo

  3. 3 Landra Oct 29th, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Great job I enjoyed the article and I learned something. Keep up the good work.

  4. 4 Mekonen Woldemariam Oct 29th, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    It’s an excellent article and real informative. Thank you Martha and Tadias for educating us on this important issue that we all should be concerned about and help in any way we can.

  5. 5 Mike Z Oct 30th, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Dr. Ortman – I really appreciate what you are doing to help out these girls.

  6. 6 Yemane Oct 30th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Martha, this is great article and great program. …, empowering young athletics to succeed in life and in return to help back the communities and follow the footsteps to empower the future children is wonderful thing to do. The girls will be happy and encouraged to aspire high and become fruitful citizen of tomorrow.

    I will be in touch to help.

  7. 7 Pat Ortman Oct 30th, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks to everyone who replied! We look forward to hearing from and working with those who are interested.

    Pat

  8. 8 Mikias Oct 30th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I absolutely loved this story. Dr. Patricia Ortman, what you are doing is highly needed and of course rewarding! We Ethiopians should be doing more of this, instead of bickering amongst each other. That’s why I love Tadias Magazine for bringing us so many interesting, very well written, informative, inspiring and entertaining stories. I love you guys and please keep it up! And thanks Martha.

    Your loyal reader,
    Mikias

  9. 9 Henok Sema Oct 31st, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Thank you Martha for telling this story. Girls Gotta Run, you guys are true human beings. I myself was a track and field reporter in Ethiopia. I have traveled to Asela, Bekoji, Asasa, and parts of Bale, where Ethiopia’s long distance running sensations hail from. All the young runners ask for is SHOES. Too expensive for them, cost about the price of a cow to buy proper running shoes. GGRF, check out what A Running Start is doing in East Africa. There is a possibility of working together.

  10. 10 Emuye Nov 1st, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    HI Marti, i read the article. Thank you for giving us this useful information. I love your articles. keep it up. I appreciate Dr. Patricia for what she is doing.

  11. 11 Kebebush Tesfaye Nov 3rd, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Dear Martha

    Thank you for airing this news, I know Dr. Patricia in person & and I have been in some of her art exhibition, she is an extraordinary person, her commitment for the cause is beyond one can imagine. She is a tireless and never says quit kind of person, I would say to each and every one of us we can play an important role if we step up on her plate to help those children who are unable to help themselves.

    Thank you Dr. Patricia

    Kebebush

  12. 12 Mrs. Deirdre Lay Apr 27th, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Watching Joanna Lumley last night – I thought The Girls were SO fantastic,
    and would love to send some money for some shoes.

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