Shari Kunz is the kind of person you want to share your innermost secrets with.
Not just because she’s bubbly and seems like the type that will titter and commiserate, but also because when she fixes her gaze, she listens intently. She offers advice if it’s asked for, but most importantly, she will just be there, no matter what you disclose, holding your intimacy sacred. Lifting the burden.
It’s no wonder that she was able to draw a bead on what young women needed in this valley nearly 11 years ago when she introduced Girls on the Run.
And it’s that intuitive sense of connection that has driven her dedication to enhancing the life of girls by providing them tools to grow with and take with them wherever they go in life.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” she said as the news that she’d earned the Woman of the Year title settled, with some only slightly feigned bewilderment. “I knew Girls on the Run had the power to change lives. I was so invested in making sure the program was everything it could be and having it become an integral part of our community for girls and their families that I couldn’t not do it.”
Kunz speaks as rapidly and nimbly as a hummingbird moves, in and out of topics with a flurry that suggests an overactive mind and too many duties.
To put punctuation in her thoughts, Kunz runs.
It’s while running that the clarity and inner direction come, and it’s something she requires like some require medication for the same effect.
“I end up most runs with my arms up in celebration half the time,” she says. “Once I came across a beautiful valley at the end of a run and I just started twirling like I was in ‘The Sound of Music.’ I see things on my runs that I would never have witnessed otherwise. It’s pretty amazing in its simplicity. One foot in front of the other is all it takes to be life changing.”
She’s a person who doesn’t say no lightly, so she gravitates to endeavors that allow her to fuel herself while encouraging others. Her runs are often long and not for record breaking. The stretches are mostly silent because she doesn’t like to interfere with the earth’s subtle messages.
Running calms her, allowing her to be a sometimes reluctant witness to some of the stories and tribulations that young women often impart. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
For Kunz, hers is not simply a life of service to community, but an extension of what she believes are her God-given, purposeful gifts. She practices them from home to church to field and anywhere else she is called.
The 54-year-old shares a home in the Heatherlands with husband Kyle. The two met as vacation guides in the Tetons and married in 1981. They raised three children, David, 27, who is married, living in Salt Lake City, and working on a master’s in nutritional science at the University of Utah; Michael, 25, who is working with Americorps in New York City; and Laura, 19, is a student at the University of Utah and readying for a Mormon mission to Spain.
Kunz works part-time with Kyle at their Sun Valley Appraisal business, which also serves as ground zero for whatever her latest undertaking is.
And there always is an undertaking. When a meeting was arranged with her a week earlier, it was only 8:15 a.m. and she had already run, done laundry, made dinner and was headed to her book club for Christian women.
Though her faith runs deep, it is her personal fuel, not her pulpit. Honoring people for who they are requires that leeway.
“We’re all trying to get to the same place and we all want to be good people who follow our hearts and souls to whatever speak to us,” she said. “I truly believe that it is in giving of yourself that you discover yourself.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Minnesota, Kunz is the oldest of six in a family blended by circumstance and remarriage. The Brigham Young University grad has a degree in recreational management.
Though Kunz admits she has always been a doer, she said she hasn’t always seen herself as an implement for change.
Running became her mode of expression when confronted with the illness of her brother, Paul, who was diagnosed with lymphoma. She joined a team running the Portland Marathon to raise money to fight cancer in 2001.
She was in it to win it—not the race, but the fight for his life. She finished, money was raised, treatments were delivered and she was feeling a little less helpless. Still, he died.
“It was not supposed to happen that way. That’s not what I had planned,” she said. “But it was a lesson in carrying on when life doesn’t go the way you planned it.”
When she read about Girls on the Run in a magazine, she thought about the power of the activity in her own life. Girls on the Run is a national organization that helps elementary-age girls learn self-esteem and confidence through running and other physical activity. The girls meet twice a week with volunteer coaches and do service projects, do self-esteem exercises and, of course, run.
At the end of the season, the girls can walk, skip or dance their way through a 5k with many of Kunz’s trainees and mentees around them providing high-fives and goofiness.
Kunz said being silly is essential to being true to ourselves—we’re born loving ourselves and bursting into random acts for no reason grander than because it's fun. She believes mirth shouldn’t be put away as we grow. It should be leaned on to help us cope with life’s challenges.
“I am so against labels,” she said. “Labels are limiting. The real measure of effort is does it take you somewhere you weren’t before? Does it show you something you never saw, inside and outside of yourself? We don’t need to know each other’s story to know that something brought us together and that there are things we share in common. We just need to show up and put ourselves out there.
“And my best advice to anyone is, ‘The finish line is just the beginning. It’s your life, run with it.’”
Going through the process of grief and the challenge of helping others, Kunz said, she accidentally found confidence.
“I wanted to know how to show these girls how to celebrate who they are, but I needed to know who I was. I hadn’t ever really slowed down to think about it,” she said. “Ultimately, this enabled me to see something I wanted to become and to become someone I always wanted to become.”
Believing in oneself can translate to a lifesaving tool when young women are confronted with peer pressure and self-doubt.
“If they can cast back in their minds and know who they are in their hearts, they will have the courage to speak up in a situation that compromises them or speak up for someone else—it only takes one.”
Kunz served as the Girls branch’s executive director from 2002 to 2007, then on the board of directors from 2007 to 2009. She remains on the advisory council and is returning as a coach this season, an opportunity she revels in because it gets her out of the management of it and into the heart of it.
She is quick to show her gratitude for, rather than take the accolade of, founding the program, giving credit to outside forces, her family and her faith.
“I proved that anything is possible as long as you believe in what you’re doing and follow your heart,” she said. “The program’s success and influence continually reminds me that when something is meant to be, we can make it happen through trust, focus, hard work and great people.”
Jen Liebrum: firstname.lastname@example.org
How Girls on the Run began
During a sunset run in 1993, after years of questioning her self-worth and being defined by others, Molly Barker found the inspiration that grew into Girls on the Run. Seeking a way to help girls recognize their extraordinary potential and thrive in a world that often sends them unhealthy and unrealistic messages, she began creating a solution.
In 1996, Molly piloted the earliest version of a lesson-based curriculum with 13 brave girls in Charlotte, N.C. The girls told their friends and those friends told more friends, and in 2000, Girls on the Run became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Today, the organization serves girls in over 200 cities across the United States and Canada.
While Girls on the Run has evolved from a grassroots concept to an international organization, the heart of the program is the same: inspiring girls to celebrate their unique identities, recognize their inner strength, understand the power they have to make individual decisions and value their connectedness with others.
Taken from www.girlsontherun.org