By Letesha Nelson
The first day Jade Koenigs, Girls Inc. manager, met the sixth through ninth grade students who signed up for the Girls Inc. Adventure Camp last summer, she asked a simple question, “Who thinks they are a leader?”
Only one girl raised her hand. You’d think that would be a concern, but Jade wasn’t worried. She knew those 17 campers sitting on their hands would soon discover just how strong, smart and bold they can be.
Jade has been working at Goodman Community Center with Girls Inc. of Greater Madison for almost three years. After leading two sessions of Adventure Camp last summer, she declared, “I’ve never experienced a more impactful way to work with kids.” Over and over again, she saw how the Girls Inc.’s evidence-based, pro-girl approach changes lives. In the best way. So it’s no wonder she can hardly wait to see how much the participants love and grow from the programs Girls Inc. is offering this spring and summer — including a project started last fall.
Look how Girls Inc. offers something for everyone:
1: Summer Adventure Camp
These two-week sessions teach outdoor skills and leadership packed with fun. In the beginning, the campers often feel stressed and awkward because they don’t know anyone, and everything they do is new — pitching a tent, navigating a high-low ropes course, fishing, cooking on a propane stove, learning canoe rescue techniques and … logrolling!
While they’re busy having fun, counselors debunk the myth that a leader is only the person who is talking in front of their group — or at the front when they find their way through the woods. Instead, the campers learn they can all lead by sharing knowledge and being responsible, which helps the group have a good experience.
During one of those activities, everyone is blindfolded and asked to find their way through a maze. They are told, “If you need help, just raise your hand.” Before long, they get frustrated because they aren’t finding the way out.
“It’s designed to push them to ask for help. It isn’t until someone raises their hand to ask for help that they “win” the activity,” Jade explained. “Once everyone has figured it out, we pull everyone together to talk about how to ask for help, why it’s important, and why it’s vital to leadership.”
For the final three days, they bike to Lake Farm County Park to camp and use all their new skills. Jade has watched several groups go through the camps.
“The kids form deep, deep connections, and they surprise themselves with what they are capable of both physically and emotionally,” Jade said.
The girls and nonbinary youth agree. They told us: “I can adapt in hard situations.” “I enjoy leading and doing acts of service.” “I’m stronger than I thought.” “You know, when I arrived, I cried because I didn’t want to be here. Now I’m crying because I don’t want to leave.”
2: Know Your Rights Conference
On May 13, Girls Inc. will host a professional, grown-up conference at Goodman for about 150 young people to explore Girls Inc.’s six Girls Bill of Rights.
Role models from the community will host breakout sessions — each one highlighting a different right. They will present creative ways to invite attendees to “try on” one of the six rights and think about what it means in their life. It’s essential learning. When youth understand and embrace their rights, they become empowered to stand up for themselves and to advocate for others.
Jade described the breakout session featuring Right No. 4: Girls have the right to accept and appreciate their bodies. A young, female DJ from the community will be playing incredibly dance-able tunes for everyone to move to. Free from the self-conscious anxieties of boy-girl dances, they can “dance like no one is watching” and simply appreciate their bodies.
At a gathering to wrap up the conference, they will reaffirm Right No. 3: Girls have a right to take risks, strive freely and to take pride in success. Together, they’ll all sing the Girls Inc. song — in a round — to the tune of the haunting song, “Rose Rose Rose Red”:
We built this Legacy
I control my destiny
All Together Young Old
Smart, Strong & Bold
Lyrics by Jade Koenigs and Allison Ward
3: STEM Club and STEM Camp outings
Field trips and activities to explore science, technology, engineering and math — oh my! The photo on the previous page is from a day at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotech company where scientists guided them through a day of lab tours, experiments and slime making.
On another outing, folks from the Ice Age Trail Alliance met Girls Inc. members for a hike at Indian Lake County Park. They started their day with yoga and positive affirmations and then hiked. The kids heard cranes, identified wildflowers and butterflies, and climbed to see the historic hilltop chapel.
Another day, they built circuits to run small fans, lights and digital clocks. After learning the basics, they teamed up to see whose fan design could lift the most metal washers in a cup — a last-minute entry held up 40 washers!
4: Advocating for period products at East High
Last August, when Girls Inc. members at East High School were asked, “What do you want to do this year?” They came up with a long list of things to do — games, crafts, fun outings and more, but quickly settled on their desire to advocate for changing two things:
First, since period products are an expense not everyone can afford, they want free period products in every bathroom, along with disposal bins in every stall. And secondly, they want to make a long-overdue culture shift. They want to bring menstruation out of the proverbial closet so it is treated like what it is — natural.
The students met with several administrators at East, who have all been supportive. They also wrote and submitted a neighborhood grant for $2,400 to the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association to purchase period products. They want items to be in every bathroom, so every student with a uterus, no matter what gender a person identifies with, will have access to the products.
And maybe most remarkably, they’ve received permission to include a period “fact of the day” during announcements on Tuesdays to tackle the stigma of periods. Their idea is to talk about it so often that periods no longer illicit cringy remarks or shame.
Once the students secure funding for the period products, they know there is more they will need to do to create sustainable funding, systems for replenishing products and continuing the de-stigmatization of menstruation.
They’re thinking big — they’d love for all schools in Madison to make this a priority.
5: Leadership training
In March, Girls Inc. of Greater Madison is offering a two-day leadership training for high school students, with a built-in chance to use their new skills.
During the first four hours, students will connect with each other, learn fundamentals of facilitation and leadership, and will be given tools for planning and organizing activities. That afternoon they will take the lead on planning a full day of activities for about 150 elementary students on an out-of-school day in April.
That feels really big to me. I asked Jade what she anticipates the high school students will get from this.
“No matter what, it will be valuable. They’ll make mistakes and learn from them,” she said. “Some of them will discover they‘re good at working with kids and that they enjoy it. Some will learn it’s probably not their life’s work. That’s helpful, too. But they’ll also see how much work it is and how satisfying it can be when you step out of your comfort zone and take the lead.”
What matters most
No matter which Girls Inc. programs a young person participates in, they often start saying things like, “I’m a girl and really proud of it.” You gotta love that.
If you or someone you know, wants to participate, visit our Girls Inc. page for more information.
Girls Inc. activities are free
But of course, it costs money to provide incredible staff, transportation, food and all kinds of supplies. So thank you to everyone who has supported Girls Inc. in the past. If you’d like to ensure programs like this continue, please make a gift today.
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