Girl Power

15 organizations that empower young women.

1. Recovering from a violent situation is serious, especially for girls and young women. A Long Walk Home’s Girl/Friends Institute empowers girls and young women to advocate for themselves and other girls in Chicago, using art to design campaign programs that push for the end of violence against women of all ages.

“These girls take on issues that are often overlooked and ignored – domestic violence, sexual assault and street harassment – with a boldness, brilliance and creativity that might just save us all,” says founder Scheherazade Tillet. Since its founding in 2003, A Long Walk Home has helped over 100,000 girls and women rebuild their confidence and become voices for ending gender violence. www.‌alongwalkhome.‌org


2. Chicago Foundation for Women inspires young girls to some day become philanthropists themselves. To start their journey, the girls participate in programs addressing literacy, gay-straight alliances and adolescent health. “I have the opportunity to see how the work of our grantees can transform an entire community,” shares CEO K. Sujata. “When you change a girl’s life, you’re on a pathway to changing the world.”

Once they’ve grown up, these young women can take part in CFW’s three Giving Councils, which provide leadership opportunities while teaching how to obtain and distribute grant money to their chosen philanthropic interests. Says Ms. Sujata, “I’ve been a witness to the power of girls when we’ve made an investment in them.” www.‌cfw.‌org


3. ComEd’s lifeline is technology, innovation and, now, empowering young women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Last summer, ComEd demonstrated that mission with its Icebox Derby to highlight STEM initiatives for girls, as women are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Thirty girls, ages 13 to 19, were invited to build electric cars from recycled refrigerators. After six weeks, the girls raced their cars in a heated competition and each received a $1,000 scholarship. “They loved the technical challenge, in addition to the leadership opportunities and the camaraderie with the other STEM girls,” observes ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore. “But their favorite part of the experience was using the power tools in constructing the race cars!”

From a professional stance, Ms. Pramaggiore has a future workforce to worry about. For that reason, she has invited the girls to come back to ComEd once they graduate college. “I’m very proud of the females that represent ComEd in the field,” she adds. “Their skills range from meter reading to overhead line work to underground cable splicing. These women literally power our city…they power lives.” www.‌comed.‌com


4. GirlForward provides mentorship, summer education programs and tutoring to about 100 girls annually, insuring they have access to opportunities to empower their independence and growth. Founder Blair Brettschneider moved to Chicago in 2010 and was working for a refugee resettlement agency when she was inspired to start the organization. “These girls went through things I cannot imagine, and they work as hard as they can for college and a career,” she observes. “Coming to work is worthwhile everyday.” www.‌girlforward.‌org


5. The leaders of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana believe girls need opportunities, experiences and female role models to show them what’s possible in the STEM world. Acknowledging that these girls are key to our country’s economic success; to that end, the organization has built an impressive portfolio of STEM programs, including the girls-only First LEGO Robotics teams and sponsoring other fun programs like Spa Science, Thingamajigs and Whatchmacallits, among others.

“One of our priorities is to bring these same STEM experiences to those girls often overlooked,” explains the local chapter’s CEO Nancy Wright, who also notes that they’re currently working with more than 5,000 at-risk girls “because we know they have the potential to succeed.” www.‌girlscoutsgcnwi.‌org


6. Girls 4 Science wants girls to know they are needed in the science, math and technology fields. The 501(c)(3) non-profit operates a free Saturday Science Academy at Olive Harvey Community College, Malcolm X Community College and the University of St. Francis on a quarterly basis. Executive Director Jackie Lomax believes that dreams come true when you lead by example, and that’s exactly how Girls 4 Science operates. Their mentors are professionals, college students and pioneers in science and technology, with more than 300 girls participating in the program since 2009. www.‌girls4science.‌org


7. Playing sports isn’t just about burning off energy; it’s about building confidence, teamwork and leadership skills. For 20 years, Girls in the Game has brought sports programs to Chicago schools and parks, often for girls who’d otherwise not have the opportunity.

The organization offers everything from traditional sports like basketball to non-traditional ones like lacrosse. Teenage participants also help coach the elementary and middle school girls. “It’s amazing to watch the girls in these programs,” says Dawn Kobel, senior development manager. “I’ve been here four-and-a-half years, and now I’m seeing some of them graduate high school. I see how they impact these younger girls; the younger ones really look up to them.” www.‌girlsinthegame.‌org


8. Since girls and young women can fall victim to bad environments and influences that surround them, it’s important for successful, positive women to take charge. Girls of Grace is committed to the holistic development of girls between ages 8 and 18, and embraces them with mentorship, leadership development and even etiquette training programs.

Founder/CEO Wytress Richardson knows how critical it is to break the cycle of bad behaviors before it’s too late: “The responsibility lies with us; those of us who have been educated, are working in successful careers and have pulled ourselves up by our boot straps. We owe it to those coming after us…girls and women who have yet to have that chance.” Through Girls of Grace, at-risk girls learn to value themselves, their potential and to become future leaders. www.‌girlsofgraceyouthcenter.‌org


9. Girls on the Run is a program for girls in third through eighth grade that teaches life skills through interactive lessons and running games. Situated all over the country, local programs include the Chicago area, Northwest Illinois, Central Illinois, East Central Illinois and Champaign. The goal is to help the girls unleash their confidence and prepare them to complete a celebratory 5k. CEO Elizabeth Kunz says she has “an immense amount of gratitude to serve an organization that honors authenticity, integrity, mindfulness and respect for others.” www.‌girlsontherun.‌org


10. Because of a shortage of females in art criticism, the Goodman Theatre works hard make sure the voices of young women are heard through its Cindy Bandle Young Critics organization. In partnership with the Association for Women Journalists, the literary program for girls in the 11th grade blends theater criticism with writing, with each girl mentored by a professional writer.

“Many of the young women have used their experiences here as a launch pad for success in college and beyond,” notes Willa Taylor, director of education and community engagement for Goodman Theatre. “Several students returned to be interns and teaching artists. And each fall several are hired for front-of-house positions.” www.‌goodmantheatre.‌org


11. Not every girl is dealt a fair hand in life. That’s why sisters Sunny Chico and Nely Bergsma set out to create Penedo Charitable Organization. Founded in 2009, PCO helps young girls make better life decisions in spite of the challenges they’re facing.

“PCO is a place to not feel afraid,” says Ms. Bergsma, who along with her sister inspires the girls to discover themselves and realize their self worth through one-on-one mentoring. PCO works on a cohort system, accepting 10 sixth-grade girls into their group each year. The first group of cohorts is now juniors in high school. www.‌penedocharitable.‌com


12. Conchetta Jones had the idea to incorporate self-esteem building into a fashion show that would culminate at the end of a yearlong mentorship program. She’s All That now serves more than a dozen young girls a year in Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs.

“We teach them voice projection and how to talk to people,” shares Ms. Conchetta. “But we also talk about body image, and what you can and cannot change, and how to love yourself.” With the help of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Professional Women, She’s All That brings girls on field trips to downtown Chicago to practice etiquette skills and open up new opportunities. www.‌shesallthatfan.‌com


13. Step Up is a national membership non-profit where professional women inspire young girls to be confident and college-bound. Through after-school programs in four Chicago high schools, Step Up members provide them resources necessary to reach their college goals.

“We empower these girls to be the next generation of leaders,” explains Cassandra Gaddo, managing director for Step Up Chicago. “You see them progress and grow. By the time they’re in 12th grade, they can talk to 200 Step Up professional women with confidence.” Step Up currently serves 250 girls in Chicago, with a big goal beginning in 2015 – to launch the program in a new school each year. www.‌suwn.‌org


14. More than 5,000 girls in Chicago depend on programs offered by the Union League Boys and Girls Club. Specifically, there’s the SMART Girls program, where adult women meet with the girls to discuss school and what is going on in their lives. The organization also has a science club run by a female science professor at Northwestern University, showing girls that women, too, can make strides in science.

“For me, in Chicago, kids have a tough life,” says Stacy Fleming, trustee on the board of directors for the Union League Boys and Girls Club. “And they did nothing to deserve it. But these girls compete in leadership conferences, and you can tell they feel proud, and they compete for scholarships.” www.‌ulbgc.‌org


15. The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago is giving girls hands-on technology experience through its TechGYRLS youth empowerment program, which teaches them to work with technological tools while developing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. At the end of this 12-week program, girls are experienced with programming, robotics and design, and ready to take on the technological challenges of the future.

“With programs like TechGYRLS and our Young Parents Program, the YWCA equips girls with the skills needed to compete in a highly competitive economy and work force,” says CEO Dorri McWhorter. “We’re ensuring that these ‘future women’ not only bring home the farm-raised bacon, but engineer the future hi-tech stove to fry it on!” www.‌ywcachicago.‌org

Rosemary Fanti Illustration


About Hannah Kohut

True to her southern roots, Hannah Kohut can sit and talk to people for hours, learning their stories and bringing their successes to the spotlight. As a freelance news reporter and writer in the greater Chicago area, Ms. Kohut brings attention to some of the city's most inspiring individuals who overcome insurmountable odds and exceed their own dreams. She is a strong advocate for animal rights and U.S. military veterans, collecting as many stories she can about their pasts. While not interviewing or searching for her next inspirational subject, Ms. Kohut is busy reading the entire Anne Rice collection or picking out that next amazing shade of pink lipstick. She is also borderline obsessed with costume jewelry, heels and anything black.