Empowering Young Women

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These local organizations were built to inspire the Chicago girl.

Developing the minds and hearts of young women is an invaluable investment in society. But in today’s world, girls face issues far beyond their years and find themselves distracted by having to make difficult life decisions.

Chicago girls living in the inner city must work harder at becoming positive, confident, productive women. For years, many local organizations have provided an outlet to inspire these young women to become successful adults. And they agree that, now more than ever, girls need to be encouraged, empowered and shown a world that exists beyond their communities.

They may be known for cookies, but Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana also promotes courage, character and confidence, serving about 84,000 girls across the area. In addition to traditional troops run by community groups, Girl Scouts has staff in 40 Chicago Public Schools teaching a curriculum that includes science and healthy living, which covers bullying. It brings scouting to places where it wouldn’t exist otherwise, says CEO Maria Wynne. “But it’s life after school that keeps the child off the streets,” she insists. “It’s the interests out of school that create potential. If you can spark a kid’s imagination or their motivation…that will keep them from wanting to belong to a gang.”

Just six years ago, Girl Scouts created Camp CEO to pair girls with professionals in their prospective careers at a 24-hour camp in Valparaiso, Indiana. Professionals share their stories with girls, hoping to inspire and inform them on different life choices. Through Camp CEO and other projects, Girl Scouts places a strong focus on making sure girls are employable for the future job force, aligning programming with the Chicago area’s regional economic plan through 2040. Ms. Wynne says the purpose is to “make sure girls are prepared and equipped with an understanding of the opportunities they’ll have and what will be important in that world, in terms of equipping themselves academically and understanding vital skill sets.”

Another area organization working to encourage teens is After School Matters (ASM), the vision of former Chicago First Lady Maggie Daley that began over two decades ago as ‘gallery37’ and evolved into ASM in 2000. “Our programs have proven to be effective at keeping teens engaged,” says Board Chair Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments. “We’re the answer to some of the problems going on in Chicago when it comes to violence among young people.”

ASM hosts a program called Colored Girls are Cover Girls, which helps high school girls understand everyday issues through creative expression. Established in 2009, the program uses hip-hop music, spoken word and other art forms to allow girls to openly discuss HIV/AIDS, trust in relationships and other at-risk behavior. “We’re trying to promote positive lifestyle choices through these art mediums,” explains Ms. Hobson. “It also allows the girls to build healthy adolescent relationships among each other.”

With about 300 programs serving 22,000 teens annually, other ASM programs include sculpture, jewelry, building robots and computers. “ASM gives these teens an outlet, and it’s having these outlets which can turn into areas of intense interest,” observes Ms. Hobson. “Teens are choosing a better path – not the choices that lead to the violence or incarceration.”

Years after Nely Bergsma and her family immigrated to the United States from Cuba, upon seeing her troubled 23-year-old niece die of a curable disease, she and her sister pledged their lives to helping build women of faith, service and knowledge and co-founded Edgewater-based Penedo Charitable Organization (PCO) in 2009. “We start them in sixth grade with academic support and mentoring,” Ms. Bergsma says about the series of daily after school programs. Girls at three Edgewater schools participate in PCO from adolescence through college, receiving support in 11 of the most critical developing years of their lives. They also receive social and emotional help – a psychologist teaches them anger management, conflict resolution and other values.

All three organizations note that families and the greater community should be held accountable for the healthy growth of all kids. As Ms. Hobson points out, “They want to be in safe neighborhoods where they can thrive and grow and live. It’s our responsibility as a society to create that environment.”

Keep reading on the next page to see even more organizations that empower young women.

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About Renita D. Young

Native Chicagoan Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist currently reporting for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in southern Louisiana. With experience reporting on a variety of topics in three countries, she previously covered breaking news for Thomson Reuters, NBCUniversal's TheGrio.com and WVON 1690AM, among others.