Courtney Hanlon and Hannah Systrom first met as athletic adversaries, when Hanlon captained the Amherst College women’s hockey team and Systrom captained the team at Williams College, Amherst’s perpetual rival. They met again as students at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. There, they set aside their competitive rivalry after bonding over a shared formative experience while growing up: both were profoundly impacted by their involvement in athletics and the female mentors who helped them up their game—on and off the field.
“Having both grown up playing hockey, a sport dominated by men, we turned to our female role models and coaches to guide us in the game,” Sytrom explains.
“Sports, teamwork, and leadership opportunities all played a really important role in both Hannah’s and my adolescence,” says Hanlon. “We both attribute a lot of our past success and future aspirations to the discipline, confidence, and resilience instilled in us through team activities during our youth.”
So the two joined forces to lead a mentorship program that promotes teamwork, develops self-esteem, and improves the health and well-being of middle school girls in Vermont’s Upper Valley.
“We both felt a drive to help girls in our area discover their own competence and gain self-esteem,” Sytrom explains. “So we developed a service project toward those aims.”
Working with Girls On The Run Vermont, Hanlong and Systrom implemented the organization’s new Heart & Sole program at Hartford Memorial Middle School. Tailored specifically toward middle school girls, Heart & Sole utilizes curriculum that teaches life skills such as team-building, boundary setting, social skills, goal setting, problem solving, self care, and decision making in a small-group setting of eight to 15 girls. Physical activity is also a core of the program, which concludes with a celebratory Girls on the Run 5k.
The program filled a void for girls who did not have stable support systems at home, empowering and encouraging them to set goals and reach for them, and offering a safe space for them to grow as individuals and as members of a team.
“I hope that the girls we’ve worked with are able to use the skills we practiced throughout the year—problem-solving, effective communication, and personal resilience—to handle situations as they arise during adolescence and beyond,” says Hanlon.
Indeed, the skills proved to be effective and empowering for at least one member of the group, who excitedly approached Systrom in the school hallway one day and reported, “I faced my bully!”
“She was regularly being tormented by a boy in her class and finally told him that was enough, he couldn’t treat her like that,” Systrom recalls. “While she’s usually shy and reserved, she built up the confidence and courage to face him. She couldn’t have been prouder of herself. Our interaction crystallized for me the impact our program has had.”
Hanlon and Systrom also received numerous accolades from the parents of participants, via email and in person. In one email to NH/VT Fellowship Program Director Nancy Gabriel, for instance, the mother of a sixth grader praised the Fellows for teaching and mentoring the girls in achieving balance in their studies, improving their health, goal-setting and giving back to the community.
“My husband and I are extremely grateful to have had such accomplished young women inspire Avery and her peers,” she wrote. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity for them.”
With their Fellowship year at an end, Hanlon and Systrom are happy to report that the program will be sustained by two first-year medical students who helped with coaching during the fall and spring.
“Their goal is to continue the program while specifically tailoring the conversations to the needs of girls at Hartford Memorial Middle School,” says Systrom. “We are so lucky to have enthusiastic and invested students to take over, and we’re excited to see what they do with the program.”
Though they were always confident that their project would make a difference for the girls in the long run, both Hanlon and Systrom were surprised to see the immediate impact the project had, as evidenced by the parental feedback, the many hugs and smiles from the girls, and the number of participants who decided to try out for the spring track team when the program ended.
“The girls’ newfound confidence in their own capacities was to me the most rewarding part of our work,” says Hanlon.