Girls Inc. of Holyoke Builds Confidence, Future Success
By Kathleen Mellen
The reach of Girls Inc. of Holyoke — which operates programs for elementary-school-aged girls as well as teenagers — is striking, serving more than 1,750 girls each year through programs, peer education, and community outreach on a budget of $1.3 million. But other numbers are more impressive, such as statistics showing that Girls Inc. participants are more likely than their peers to get good grades, attend college, and find learning fun and valuable. What it all adds up to is a priceless foundation for success.
You could call it a lunch break on wheels.
Every Monday through Friday during the school year, Dianette Marrero uses her lunch hour to drive her daughters, Jasminn, 7, and Tatianna, 10, from their hometown of Chicopee to 52 Nick Cosmos Way in Holyoke, where the girls attend a licensed after-school program for ages 5 to 12, sponsored by Girls Inc. of Holyoke. And when her workday is done, Marrero returns to pick her daughters up.
Marrero says she doesn’t mind the drive in the least. She’s been sold on the nonprofit organization that educates and empowers girls from underserved communities ever since her daughters started attending its girls-only after-school program nearly two years ago. Through the program’s breadth of activities — including an in-depth literacy program, educational field trips, outdoor activities, and experiential, hands-on learning opportunities — she says her daughters are learning to be confident and motivated young women.
“Girls Inc. allows the girls to be confident with their peers,” Marrero told BusinessWest. “We’re a girls-only family, so this has been great for my daughters.”
Stella Cabrera, 16, has had a similarly positive experience: she has participated in nearly every program offered by Girls Inc. of Holyoke since joining up in the fifth grade. She first heard about the organization from a friend, and pleaded with her mother to let her attend.
“I was getting bullied by boys at school, and I wanted to try something new,” Cabrera said in an interview at the Girls Inc. administrative office and teen center at 6 Open Way in Holyoke. “It was really exciting because I’d never been in a place where it was just girls.”
Since then, she’s become more confident, and she credits Girls Inc. with the transformation.
“When I started out, I was a really shy person; I didn’t talk to many people,” she said. “Now I make friends with everybody. I don’t judge people. I’ve learned to accept people for who they are.”
Testimonials like these are music to Suzanne Parker’s ears.
“It’s our mission to inspire girls,” said Parker, the organization’s executive director. “The work that we’re doing, helping them to be successful, is really important.”
Girls Inc. of Holyoke, formerly the Holyoke Girls Club, operates programs for elementary-school-aged girls, as well as Holyoke’s only teen center just for girls. Serving more than 1,750 girls each year through programs, peer education, and community outreach, the organization aims to equip girls to navigate gender, economic, and social barriers, and grow up to be healthy, educated, and independent. It is one of more than 90 Girls Inc. affiliates of a network across the U.S. and Canada that serves more than 138,000 girls, ages 5 to 18.
“The programs we provide are developed to meet the very specific needs of girls,” Parker said. “Having the research and the support of the national organization really helps us with that.”
Why Girls Only?
Girls live in a society with different expectations about success for boys and girls, Parker said, and Girls Inc. aims to close that gap. By teaching personal-development and communications skills, conflict resolution and problem solving, and how to make healthy choices relating to their bodies and relationships, it aims to “inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold by offering life-changing experiences and real solutions to the unique issues girls face,” according to its website.
“We work to build up their confidence, making sure they have self-esteem, but first and foremost, we make sure they’re exposed to opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Parker said. “All of those things are best done, we feel, in a girl-only environment, where they feel safe. They know they have a sisterhood here.”
The organization’s hallmarks are its mentoring programs, the girls-only environment, and its research-based, hands-on approach to learning. It also advocates for legislation and policies to increase opportunities for all girls.
The staff includes 11 full-time and four part-time professionals year-round, as well as an additional eight to 10 staff members who work in the full-day summer programs. In addition, more than 100 community members volunteer with the organization in a number of ways.
Nearly 70% of those who attend programs at Girls Inc. of Holyoke live in households earning $30,000 a year or less; one in 10 lives below the $10,000 line. The majority of members are Latina, Parker noted. While most live in Holyoke, some come from Chicopee, like Jasminn and Tatianna, and others live in Longmeadow, Wilbraham, South Hadley, Westfield, and West Springfield.
The organization’s newest strategic plan includes initiatives to broaden the organization’s reach, with in-school programs now being developed in Holyoke’s Peck Middle School, as well as Alfred G. Zanetti Montessori Magnet School and M. Marcus Kiley Middle School, both in Springfield.
In April, the organization was one of 17 Girls Inc. affiliates to receive a three-year grant award of $100,000 from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation to expand strategically to serve more girls growing up in low-income communities.
“Girls Inc. of Holyoke has a strong track record of making a measurable difference in the lives of girls,” said Judy Vredenburgh, president and CEO of Girls Inc. “As a well-run, sound organization, they are poised for expansion and growth, preparing more girls for responsible and confident adulthood, economic independence, and personal fulfillment.”
The programming reflects those initiatives, and its successes are measurable. For example, according to a national survey, one in six girls will not finish high school; by contrast, three-quarters of high-school girls who attend Girls Inc. programs report earning As and Bs on report cards, and 85% say they plan to attend college.
Finding Their Voice
Still, Parker said, girls who do well in math and science can pay a price socially at school, where they are often teased, even bullied, by other students. “We hear it from girls all the time. Bullying continues to be a major issue with girls across the country. And when you’re in school and you’re facing that, it’s hard to be successful.”
Girls Inc. addresses these gender-specific problems — and, more importantly, crafts solutions — in its girls-only environment.
“In order to be successful, girls have to have confidence, and they have to understand they have a voice and that they have the tools needed to be successful in that co-educational world we all live in,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a need to provide a space for girls where they can come together, where they can take risks, try things they wouldn’t otherwise try.”
To that end, the organization fashions programs that promote academic success for girls in fields previously thought to be the domain of males. Chief among them is the Eureka! program, a STEM-based approach to education for eighth- through 12th-graders, which places girls in labs and classrooms at UMass Amherst for intensive training in science, technology, engineering, and math.
More than 100 girls are currently involved in Eureka!, attending the program for four weeks in the summer and on one Saturday a month during the school year, where they work with UMass professors who volunteer their time to offer hands-on experiences in fields like nanoscience, robotics, DNA research, and forensic science. In addition, the students are active daily in physical fitness and sports training, healthy living, and financial literacy.
Data shows that girls participating in Eureka! stay engaged in math and science throughout high school; many go on to higher education, often becoming the first in their family to attend a college or university, Parker noted. According to a recent survey, the percentage of girls participating in the program who identify themselves as “smart” increased by 13%, girls who think math is fun and interesting increased by 10%; and girls who feel comfortable in science class increased by more than 20%.
“Exposing girls to STEM skills and proficiencies is absolutely critical,” she went on. “While they might not all go into traditional STEM careers, the types of skills they’re learning, and the exposure they’re having, is absolutely critical. I believe that to the core.”
In the same survey, more girls also reported a positive body image, and nearly 90% of Eureka! girls see school as an opportunity “to learn as much as I can.” It also showed that the percentage of girls planning to go to a four-year college increased more than 10%.
Cabrera, now a high-school junior, and one of the original Eureka! scholars, wants to be a math teacher, and plans to attend college after she graduates from high school.
“I’ll be the first grandchild [in my family] to graduate and plan to go to college,” she said, adding that the program has significantly bolstered her confidence. “I really thrive, and I’ve gotten so much support for being strong. It’s a really inspiring program, and it really does help girls to understand their power and their impact on the world, and the amount of strength they have in themselves that they probably haven’t tapped yet.”
Avenues of Support
Girls Inc. of Holyoke’s annual budget is about $1.3 million, with between 55% and 60% of funding coming from the state. As a licensed after-school provider, it receives some funding from the state Department of Early Care. The teen center also receives support from the state Department of Public Health to run programs in pregnancy prevention and youth violence prevention. Specifically, the organization’s Healthy Relationships module helps girls learn to “identify, establish, and cultivate healthy relationships through assertiveness and negotiation skills,” and Project Bold works to “ensure that girls have the skills, knowledge, and support to be safe and reduce their risk of experiencing violence.”
But, Parker says, those funds don’t begin to cover the cost of providing a high-quality experience. For the past 10 years, the organization has held a Spirit of Girls breakfast, its signature fund-raising event; this year, on April 4 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, a record crowd of about 450 people donated more than $140,000.
The organization also relies on foundation grants, as well as corporate and private donors. Indeed, Parker says there’s been a significant uptick in recent years in support from individuals. For example, participation in the three-year-old Champion for Girls initiative, through which individuals donate $1,000 or more, has risen from 15 annual donors to close to 100.
The organization also launched a program this year for ‘corporate champions,’ which is also seeing growing success, Parker said, with recent donations from CheckWriters Payroll, MassMutual, and PeoplesBank.
“Companies are definitely seeing the value of partnering with Girls Inc.,” she added. “We have to work hard; we’re always looking for people who are interested in investing in our work. We can’t do it alone.”
That work continues to enrich the lives of its members, from the STEM education of Eureka! to myriad teen-center programs offered on a drop-in basis, including art, creative writing, spoken-word expression, computer coding, and entrepreneurship, among others, as well as myriad field trips, classes, and workshops.
The success-based programming is not just reserved for the older girls. Last year, for example, a group of younger students, including Jasminn and Tatianna, developed a business model for a lemonade stand and put it into practice; the girls tested their lemonade recipe, did a market survey, and created a business plan to determine how much were they would charge for the lemonade. Then they launched their business in a real-life setting, setting up their stand at Celebrate Holyoke. Finally, the girls deposited the proceeds into a bank account and, together, decided how they would spend it.
That program, like others at Girls Inc. of Holyoke, builds a knowledge base that is useful in the real world, while building self-confidence, said Brandy Wilson, director of middle- and high-school programs.
“It’s all about exploring their options. So many times, girls who come in from what we consider an underserved community don’t know what their options are,” she explained. “We’re giving the girls experiences that make that lightbulb go off — that makes them realize, ‘I can do this.’”