RAVENSWOOD — Ravenswood Elementary has its own version of the Energizer Bunny and her name is Susan Conti.
A 10-year veteran of Ravenswood's faculty, Conti recently received the Energy Award from Girls on the Run, a program that uses the power of running to instill self-esteem in girls ages 8 to 14. Coach Julia Evans was also honored.
"The joke is I that only run when it's Girls on the Run time," said Conti, who brought the program to Ravenswood in 2008 after witnessing its success while volunteering with a friend.
Before then, "I couldn't even run two blocks," she recalled.
Conti built the program and her cardio capacity simultaneously — Ravenswood, 4332 N. Paulina St., now has 60 girls in third through eighth grades participating in twice-yearly 12-week sessions that culminate in a 5k run.
"It's got me really a lot more active," said eighth-grader Nicola Hannigan, 13.
"It's about motivation, respecting yourself and others, setting goals," she added.
When the program's in session — fall and spring — girls meet every Monday and Wednesday, from 3:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m., for a lesson and workout.
"These girls, they don't join it at first because they want to run," said Conti. "They want to hang out."
"One thing we know about girls in general, they need to talk things out," said Ravenswood Principal Heather Connolly. "We've been able to get our girls to have conversations about their conflicts. It's given the girls a space to deal with conflicts."
Issues range from hurt feelings over who sits with whom in the lunchroom to fears about the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon.
"They were upset about why such bad things were happening," said Conti. "We changed it to how you can help."
She's been surprised by how much students internalize the Girls on the Run lessons and use them to cope with stress and pressure.
A balance exercise, for example, came in handy for a student who was preparing to move out of state and was feeling torn between her family and friends.
"They really do listen," Conti said.
Balance is a lesson Conti is working on putting into practice herself.
In addition to coordinating Girls on the Run, she heads up the school's math club, tutors and, oh yeah, teaches four different math classes, which calls for quadruple the prep work. Adding to her load, she recently enrolled in a course to obtain her administrator's certification.
"I haven't even started the first class and I'm already interning," she said.
Most days, she doesn't make it back to the Lincoln Square home she shares with husband, Brian Conti, her high school sweetheart, until 6:30 p.m.
"I don't even know how she does it," said Jennifer Reza, one of the many friends Conti has roped into volunteering for Girls on the Run. "She has a great heart. You know she loves what she does."
"It's meant a lot," said eighth-grader Elaina Perez, 14. "I think it's really awesome [Conti's] taking the time out of her day and her life."
Conti does admit to having the occasional "stress day," though. In fact, word of the Energy Award reached her at a moment when she was feeling particularly overwhelmed by her responsibilities.
"And then I go check my email," she said. Just like that she was reeled back in.
"She absolutely is a teacher who is in teaching for the right reasons," said Connolly. "She's taken girls under her wing and helped them get scholarships or taken them to and from testing. She takes on things for the betterment of the students."
Conti, a Glen Ellyn native and DePaul alum, is simply providing the support she recalls needing herself as a child.
"My mom made me join everything once, but I always needed to have someone with me," she said. "I wanted to be on the dance team, but no one would try out with me, so I didn't do it and I still regret it. Some girls need that extra push. I tell them, 'You want to be in the talent show? I'll go with you. I'll take you there and sit with you.'"
The reward, for Conti, is the relationships she's built with her students and seeing the pride and excitement in their faces, whether they've just completed a four-mile run or solved a tricky math problem.
"The a-ha moment, I love that. That light bulb, oh it's so neat," said Conti. "Teaching in school is so much more than a textbook."