Girls Inc. and COVID: A Tiny Pocket of Normalcy
Though they've faced their share of challenges through this pandemic, Girls Inc. continues to motivate girls throughout the greater Madison area to be Strong, Smart and Bold.
By Amie Hoag
Assistant Director of Communications
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, a small Girls Inc. group gathered at the Goodman Community Center’s Brassworks building. Girls spread out in the room on beanbag chairs and the group’s facilitator, Jade Koenigs, talked through moments from the day when she observed each girl display leadership. The affirmations didn’t stop with Koenigs. Each girl took her turn, observing a moment when one of her peers – including Jade and another adult facilitator in the room – demonstrated leadership that day.
I was struck by the openness of the girls, both in giving and receiving compliments. There was no uncomfortable fidgeting, no refusals to accept the kind words, only nods of agreement among the earnest observations from the day’s activities.
Moments like this are typical of Girls Inc. of Greater Madison programming, where facilitators work to empower young people to see how strong, smart and bold they are.
“For most of us, when someone does a job that you like, you say, ‘You did a good job,’” Koenigs explained. “These leadership affirmations give them a vocabulary to be able to describe and understand leadership in a specific way. It shows them they have more skills than maybe they were aware of and that leadership skills take on many different forms.”
For Corrina Robinson, an eighth grader at O’Keeffe Middle School, moments like this are why she continues to come back to Girls Inc. Corrina has been participating in Girls Inc. since she signed herself up for the program in sixth grade. “It’s like family,” she told me.
And this year, family feels extra important. Corrina is one of a handful of girls who regularly attend Girls Inc. programming at the Goodman Community Center.
“I like that Girls Inc. gives me opportunities to try different things, like learning about history or about how to start your own business,” she said.
And there’s the beauty of Girls Inc.: Opportunity. This program is about enriching the lives of girl in the Madison area through research-based curricula that encourages all girls to be strong, smart and bold. There are a lot of things about Girls Inc. that have had to change over the last year, but that core mission has held steady.
Facing Challenges Head-On
Pahoua Vang has been with Girls Inc. of Greater Madison for more than six years, starting as a Girls Inc. coordinator in the Goodman Center’s Lussier LOFT program and working now as manager for all of GIGM. She’s been working with sites across the Madison area to figure out how to continue to serve girls when they’re not physically in school.
“The majority of our programs operate out of schools, which makes it so easy for us to reach as many girls as possible – we show up where they are every day,” she said. “When the coronavirus closed schools in Dane County, our girls were left without a lifeline.”
Several sites shifted to connecting with girls online during that time and sites like the Goodman Center, Lussier Community Education Center, Middleton Youth Center and MSCR Cares Camps did reopen for in-person programming in the fall. But enrollment has been a fraction of a normal year, partly because there are restrictions on how many girls can attend and partly because parents either don’t feel safe sending their girls to in-person programming or don’t have a way to get them there.
“Our facilitators and managers have been getting so creative, trying to figure out how they can reach more girls, and it feels like we’ve finally started to make some progress in that area,” said Vang.
At MSCR, this progress has come in a virtual Girls Inc. hub. Facilitators film new Girls Inc. activities each week and share it via the digital platform. For girls attending the MSCR Cares Camps, the videos are part of an in-person Girls Inc. program, while girls at home have access to the same programming from their living rooms.
“MSCR has seen a great response to these videos, both from girls attending Cares Camp, as well as girls looking to engage Girls Inc. from home,” said Vang.
For other sites, in-person has been the most successful way to reach girls. At the Lussier Community Education Center, for example, though Girls Inc. attendance has been lower than a normal year, there is a benefit to having a smaller, more consistent group of girls.
“Having a fairly consistent group of girls compared to our drop-in group during the school year has allowed staff to better get to know students,” said Sara Her, Middle School Girls Inc. Coordinator. “This allows us to authentically develop stronger relationships, and students have become more vocal about their interests and what they’d like to see in the club.”
Keeping Girls Safe
During a global pandemic, physical safety takes center stage, but emotional and metal safety is equally important. For Girls Inc. programs welcoming girls to in-person programming, safety is a top priority, and it shows in girls like Corrina.
Corrina has Type 1 diabetes, and because of this, her parents have been cautious about how much she interacts with others during the pandemic. She was enrolled in the Goodman Center’s teen program, but her parents didn’t think it was safe for her to come to Goodman five days a week. So Corrina chose Girls Inc. on Wednesdays.
“Girls Inc. is important because it gives you a whole different mindset,” she told me. “It helps you learn more about yourself. It helps me, and I feel like it would help other girls too.”
Students attending in-person programming at all Girls Inc. sites go through a health screen before attending, and extra safety protocols are in place, like regular sanitizing of surfaces, masks and physical distancing.
The rest of the in-person programming is largely unchanged. There are plenty of opportunities for learning and self-expression, to stretch their leadership muscle and feel safe talking about difficult topics.
When I asked Corrina how Girls Inc. was different now versus pre-coronavirus, the only thing that came to mind for her was wearing masks, and having to keep distance between herself and her peers. That says something striking about the strength of the work Girls Inc. facilitators are doing. They’ve created a tiny pocket of normal in an anything-but-normal time.
Planning for the Future
There remain a lot of unknowns for Girls Inc. of Greater Madison for the rest of this school year, but the team has gotten pretty used to living in the unknowns.
“We’re making plans, knowing those plans may have to change,” said Vang. “And that's OK. We just want to make sure we’re ready for our girls as soon as we can be with them in-person across the Madison area.”
For now, at top of mind is to continue to reach out to as many girls as possible. One way the team is doing that is through Care Kits, filled with self-care items – many of them donated by local businesses – that the girls let us know they’d love to receive.
“It’s our way of letting them know we’re still here, we care about them and we can’t wait to see them in person again,” said Vang. “We’re asking for the community to help us get kits to 500 girls, as well as raise funds to support Girls Inc. programming for the rest of 2021 and beyond.”
If you’d like to learn more about how you can do that, visit goodmancenter.org/girls.
Beyond the school year, Vang and her team are deep in plans for summer camp, where there will be a focus on outdoor adventure and health and wellness.
“We’re hoping to keep as much of the camp as possible outside, for the safety of our girls,” said Vang. “And outdoor adventures are things a lot of girls wouldn’t normally have access to. We’re excited to expose them to a whole new experience while teaching them some valuable life skills.”
And that's what Girls Inc. is all about, empowering girls to find and build upon the strong, smart and bold within themselves.