Mini Mermaids an 'accidentally awesome' program with purpose

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When Heidi Boynton founded the Mini Mermaid Running Club in 2010, she did so with the goal of improving the lives of 10 girls at Del Mar Elementary in her hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Six years later, the MMRC has programs in 14 states and eight countries, with plans for further expansion.

At the espnW Summit in Dana Point, California, in October, Boynton was one of three recipients awarded a $10,000 grant through the Toyota Everyday Heroes program and has since seen awareness for Mini Mermaids, which helps to build self-esteem and teach healthy eating and living skills while introducing girls to running, skyrocket around the country. We sat down with Boynton at the espnW Women + Sports Chicago event Wednesday to find out how the award has impacted her program and why boys are feeling the love, too.

espnW: What changes have the Everyday Heroes grant allowed you to make?

Boynton: For starters, $10,000 in the pockets of a smaller non-profit like ours, with an annual operating budget under $300,000 that gives away 87 percent of our programming for free, is great. Any dollar we can get, whether it's $1 or $10,000, I am grateful. It means we can serve that many more girls. And we don't dump and run. If we bring free programming to a community, we do everything in our power to stay. We're sort of teenagers in the non-profit world, and so many non-profits go under at this point because they get into a space where they trying to give away too much and they don't have enough energy or money to continue. So anything helps us to move the needle for the work that we are doing is great.

espnW: What were the unexpected benefits of being awarded this grant?

Boynton: The other piece of how great it's been is leveraging the story and getting our brand out there. We have this unique situation with our one-for-one programming. Every student who pays for the program pays for another student to enjoy the program. If we are in more affluent communities where people pay for the program, we have the potential from a revenue standpoint to have the capacity to self-fund and revamp, rewrite, create more curriculums.

espnW: What were the challenges to gaining so much PR so quickly?

Boynton: The challenge for me is learning how to build relationships with people that will help us go further. Getting the recognition put us in a new playground we weren't in before, so there are different voices in the room. It's up to me as the executive director to navigate those potential relationships. The more partnerships in product and branding and cash, the more work we are able to do. I continually ask myself, "How do I make sure I am making the most of this amazing recognition?"

espnW: What is the current reach of Mini Mermaids?

Boynton: We are in 14 states and eight countries now: Mexico, Guatemala, Iraq, China, England and Switzerland. Next, we are expanding to Canada as well. We have served more than 7,000 students.

espnW: This spring, you expanded to boys' programs, as well. Why?

Boynton: Over the years, people kept asking about a boys' program and I would agree, yes, our boys need just as much tender loving care and time and attention, but I don't have the bandwidth. I saw an early screening of a documentary called "The Mask You Live In" and it shows the current state of our boys. It was infuriating. It made me angry that there wasn't an answer. Our boys don't have tools of self-compassion and empathy and they're disconnected and because of that, the violent behavior scale is escalating out of control. This will be the answer.

espnW: How so?

Boynton: We wrote our girls program by asking, "Where are we losing our girls at age 15? Where do they find the biggest pitfalls?" Then we backed it up and asked, "What do we need to teach them when they're 7, 8, 9, so they can face those obstacles prepared?" We asked the same about the boys. Where are we losing our boys?

We worked all summer and most of our work is based off the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, out of Houston, who has been helping us understand how to teach self-kindness and self-compassion, which leads to empathy. We piloted it this spring and have had almost 300 boys go through the program in Santa Cruz, San Jose and San Diego; we are in Idaho and Montana now. When we started the pilot program, the boys didn't even want a different name. They just wanted to be Mini Mermaids.

I have two boys and I raised them to be good men in a community of men and women. We didn't raise them just to be a "man," but a human. The waves this will create is so exciting. What if boys and girls equally have tools for their own compassion and have the way to navigate their relationships, wherever they lead, to friendship, working together toward a goal or as an intimate relationship?

espnW: You've said in the past that you feel Mini Mermaids is "accidentally awesome." After all your success, do you still feel your awesomeness is accidental?

Boynton: I do, because I love strategy and dreaming big, but I also am blown away by our success. I don't have a college education, I was a mom at 21, I survived cancer twice, I shouldn't be alive, I shouldn't have been married 25 years. ... Pretty much everything in my life is accidentally awesome.