During one of her first meetings in late February as a part of the i-tri class of 2020, sixth grader Ally Cottrell remembers learning about the positive impact she and her classmates can have on the world.
“We did a lesson on how if our lights are bright, others will be bright, and hopefully that will spread around the family and community,” said Ally, a student at Pierson Middle-High School, during a Zoom video conference with i-tri students from Sag Harbor on Monday.
Ally and her colleagues had no way of knowing at the time how much this lesson — and others learned through the group experience of i-tri, a nonprofit that every year trains girls to compete in a youth triathlon as a means of empowering adolescents — would be in the months ahead.
As schools and businesses closed and families across the country were told to socially isolate to protect themselves and healthcare systems from the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the East End nonprofit’s mission never felt more relevant, said founder Theresa Roden, with team leaders working quickly in mid-March to develop an online program for 144 adolescent girls across 11 East End school districts, from Mastic to Montauk.
Termed “itriSTRONG,” the online format for this year’s i-tri class includes fitness experiences including classes and tailored workouts, as well as triathlon-specific training and curriculum, but it also remains rooted in the nonprofit’s focus on mental and spiritual health.
Groups meet twice a week for Zoom sessions, but also for pre-recorded online classes and experiences, with team leaders also checking in on students one-on-one through surveys. There is a focus on physical health, but also family nutrition workshops and classes aimed at giving students tools for success, not just for their work toward physical goals, but toward anything they hope to achieve, now and in the future.
This week, as a part of i-tri’s “Positivity Project” initiative, students learned about visualization as a key tool toward achieving goals, from those as simple as wanting a peaceful day at home to the group’s ultimate goal of competing in the BNB Hamptons Youth Triathlon, which as of this week remains scheduled for July 11 at Long Beach in Sag Harbor.
The “Positivity Project” aims to bring the lessons the i-tri girls learn into the community at large through itrigirls.org and email blasts, so community members at large can take the lessons of i-tri and apply them to their own lives and goals.
Ms. Roden, who founded i-tri in 2010 after experiencing the transformative experience of completing a triathlon in 2005, credited the success of the online program to i-tri team leaders, who worked as a team to redesign the program’s entire curriculum when it became clear students would be unable to meet, in person, for much of the spring, if not into the summer.
“It has been incredibly successful and that is really a tribute to the entire organization,” Ms. Roden said in an interview on Monday evening. “The program team has been phenomenal.”
She also acknowledges that adolescents are at greater risk for mental health issues during COVID-19, particularly when it comes to social development, according to the World Health Organization. And middle school girls already experience the largest drop in self-esteem during early adolescence. With 69 percent of elementary school girls reporting they are “happy the way I am,” that figure drops to 29 percent, on average, for girls in high school.
When Ms. Roden hears i-tri students, like Ally, talking about how they can manifest their own positivity to help their parents, their community and even the world, she knows the message of i-tri is getting through.
“In a time where you are a kid and stressed and your parents are stressed, she is empowered and knows she has a job to do — to feel good — and that that will impact her parents, it will impact her community and it impact the world,” Ms. Roden said. “They get that, and now, more than ever, they see it is real.”
“We talk about gratitude a lot, because it is one way to find a reason to stay as positive as possible during this time because, let’s face it, it’s really easy to go in the other direction,” continued Ms. Roden. “We have always been an organization that offers mental health support for our girls — and now more than ever that feels really important.”
“I really like it,” said Jade Samuelson, a Shelter Island resident and student at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. “It’s really different because we are interacting differently with each other over the computer, but it gives us a chance to see what other people’s lives are like, and that’s interesting.”
“I like how we are not missing out on this experience,” said Ally. “We wouldn’t be getting ready for the triathlon or working on raising the spirits of people around us — we wouldn’t get all of that without this. I like it because while we can’t see people right now, it’s better to see people virtually than to not see them at all.”
Tilly Frisbie, a student at Pierson Middle-High School, said she likes the Saturday practices that involve meditation, which is how the organization ends each session.
“That is really relaxing for me,” Tilly said.
The organization, like many, is also working to support its families in need — and there are many — during the virus pandemic.
“We are helping with those facing food insecurity, connecting families to services and other nonprofits that can help them during this time,” said Ms. Roden, who said weekly Zoom calls are also held with parents — in Spanish and English. The weekly surveys are also used to check in on food and housing security
“My goal is to let them know that they are also doing a really good job,” she said. “It’s not easy and we want them to know we support them as well.”
i-tri will host a Virtual Power-Up Cocktail Party on Wednesday, May 13, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free for its BoostHER Club Members and $38 for everyone else and will offer patrons a chance to support the nonprofit’s mission, but also get together for an empowerment session where program leaders will share some of the techniques i-tri students have been learning. To register, visit https://pos.li/2fne35.