Running Against All Odds: The Women of Spark Change

Written by Libbie Randolph, Sr. Program Coordinator at Women Win, and Yassine Chagh, Intern at Women Win.

Based on interviews with Elaine Johnson, Suzette Rodriguez, Tihitina Kebede, Nantito, and Ruba.


Cover photo: Amazing Maasai Girls Project, Laikipia, Kenya

The sun is beginning to set in Philadelphia, and Elaine, the founder of Latinas in Motion, is lacing up her running shoes. She has been looking forward to her run all day. With each step, she sheds her labels and responsibilities and finds solace and freedom. Thousands of miles away, Nantito, a coordinator for Amazing Maasai Girls Project in Laikipia, Kenya, enjoys a couple more hours of sleep before she has to wake up to tend to her morning chores, after which she will head out on her morning run. In Ethiopia and Iraq, Tihitina and Ruba are dreaming about running with their friends and their upcoming races.

Each of these women represent one of the four Spark Change Program partner organizations. These organizations – Latinas in Motion, Amazing Maasai Girls Project, Free to Run, and Girls Gotta Run Foundation – use running as a tool for community building, women’s empowerment, and physical and mental wellbeing. Alongside life skills and leadership development these organizations tap into the power of running to create safe spaces for girls and women to become agents of change in their communities.


Latinas in Motion (LIM) was founded with the intent to increase the representation of Latina women in running communities throughout the U.S. Through their local chapters around the country, LIM encourages, inspires, and empowers Latinas through the power of running. Free to Run (FTR) works in some of the most challenging regions of the world, where women have suffered extreme social isolation, harassment, and unequal access to education and health resources. Their program combines running with leadership and wellbeing skills to advance gender equity and drive change in community gender norms. Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), based in Ethiopia, and Amazing Maasai Girls Project (AMGP), based in Kenya, combine running with scholarships to encourage continued education in regions with high school dropout rates of adolescent girls. These programs demonstrate that investing in girls when they are most vulnerable can have a lasting impact on their leadership skills, understanding of their rights, and financial resiliency of their families.

Despite different approaches and geographies, these organizations, their coaches, and their participants demonstrate the power of running as a tool for girls’ and women’s empowerment on a daily basis. In the locations where these organizations implement programs, running, and sports in general, are not often seen as a “women’s domain.” Just by running in public, these women are participating in a form of rebellion and are challenging gender norms. When asked how running makes them feel, the most common responses included words such as free, strong, and confident. These words demonstrate that the benefits of running are more than just physical health and speak to its power to build strong leaders and communities.

Ruba has been a participant with FTR since early 2023. She and her family are among the more than 400,000 Yazidis who were forced to leave their home in Sinjar, northern Iraq, during the war against ISIS. Ruba’s family has been internally displaced in Iraq since 2014, and now  live in Duhok. When asked what running means to her, Ruba shared,

Ruba, Free to Run, Duhok, Iraq
 “Running through Free to Run has had a transformative impact on my community, particularly for girls and women. It has provided us with a platform to challenge societal norms and stereotypes, empowering us to defy expectations and pursue our passions. Through running, we have found a sense of solidarity and sisterhood, supporting and uplifting each other every step of the way.”


Suzette, co-lead of LIM, further captures the transformative journey of running, “Running to me is freedom and a celebration of what my body can do […] Running has given me therapy; it’s almost like meditation and a genuine way to relieve stress. Above all, it has given me sisterhood in the Latinas in Motion and lifelong friendships.” This sense of sisterhood and camaraderie contributes to a powerful cycle of inspiration and empowerment and builds a sense of belonging. As women and girls connect, share, and support each other, they build collective strength and inspire others. This ripple effect spreads beyond their immediate circle, reaching other girls and women in the community.


In the Southern region of Ethiopia, an average of just 16% of girls complete secondary school, so when Tihitina chose to continue her education through GGRF – with the goal of graduating – she was already defying the odds. She reflects on qualifying to compete in a regional competition and traveling outside her hometown to run for the first time, “The nine of us from GGRF were the only girls representing Wolaita Soddo at the entire athletic event. It was really a thrill. You can see my smile below (Tihitina is 3rd from right). Two of my teammates won medals, and I was happy and proud to be there, showing that I can be strong and part of a team of girls who can run fast.”


Girls Gotta Run Foundation, Wolaita Soddo


When asked about running in Laikipia, Kenya, Nantito shared that she is often discouraged from running by her family and friends, but that the other AMGP alumni and Catherine Ndereba, an esteemed Kenyan Olympian, serve as role models and inspiration for her and the girls in the program. In places where women are not afforded the same freedoms as men, it can be hard for girls to see themselves reflected in leaders. These programs are breaking barriers towards gender equity by introducing female role models and leadership pathways to girls in their communities. 

The profound impact of these organizations extends beyond individual experiences to community building. Through shared experiences, mutual support, and collective empowerment, participants and coaches become sources of motivation for everyone involved. Witnessing female role models and peers break barriers, challenge stereotypes, and pursue their passions inspires others to do the same. This empowerment from within the community creates a positive feedback loop, where each success story fuels the aspirations of others, leading to a continuous cycle of growth and empowerment.

Since 2021, the Spark Change Program has connected Latinas in Motion, Free to Run, Girls Gotta Run Foundation, and Amazing Maasai Girls Project to share learnings, best practices, and knowledge in addition to supporting the organizations through unrestricted funding. Over the past 3 years, these four organizations have directly impacted over 2,500 girls and young women in their communities through their running and leadership programming.

Suzette Rodriguez, Latina in Motion, Philadelphia, USA

The stories of Elaine, Suzette, Ruba, Nantito, and Tihitina, although from different corners of the world, paint a picture of running not just as a physical activity but as a symbol of empowerment, resilience, and community. Whether it’s finding freedom on solo runs, bonding with fellow runners, or using running as a tool for personal and collective growth, these women exemplify the transformative power of putting one foot in front of the other, step by step, mile by mile.