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Summer Vocation

Eureka! is to increase girls’ confidence

The goal of Eureka! is to increase girls’ confidence in STEM subjects and inspire confidence in STEM careers down the line.

As Emmalene Pirnie thinks about starting college next year, she considers how the past five years in the Eureka! Program at Girls Inc. of the Valley has prepared her for that journey.

“I remember being a shy, nervous seventh-grader. If you had asked me about it then, I probably wouldn’t have answered you,” she said. “The first summer was where I saw how much I loved the community that Girls Inc. built. I loved being able to talk to the staff as friends and the other girls I got to meet. Throughout the past five years, I’d have to say it’s impacted my life in more ways than one.”

She went on to tell BusinessWest that the STEM-focused program made her realize she did enjoy her science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes in high school; she just didn’t like the way they were being taught.

Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley, explained that stereotypes linger around women not taking an interest in STEM-related learning, and these stereotypes have created a rigid gender divide in the workforce.

“The whole goal, aside from high-school graduation, is to increase confidence in STEM subjects and to inspire confidence in STEM careers in the future,” Parker said. “Having confidence in those skills is going to benefit you no matter the career path you decide to take.”

Suzanne Parker

Suzanne Parker

The program is five summers long, starting the summer after seventh grade. Through a partnership with UMass Amherst and Bay Path University, students are able to explore fully immersive, STEM-based workshops.

Parker explained that half the time is dedicated to exploring different STEM experiences and building exposure, while 25% of the time is focused around personal development, with students learning soft skills needed for jobs, such as leadership, public speaking, and communication. And the last 25% of the time is related to physical health and wellness and comprehensive sexuality education.

“They’re different from other programs in the area — it’s not just teaching the subject; they are doing science, which is different. They’re immersed in their learning,” said Yadilette Rivera-Colón, board chair for Girls Inc. of the Valley. “When we talk about the STEM workshops, it’s not demonstrations. They actually get in, use equipment, and manipulate specimens, stuff like that. It’s a really hands-on experience when they’re at UMass and Bay Path University.”

“ I loved being able to talk to the staff as friends and the other girls I got to meet. Throughout the past five years, I’d have to say it’s impacted my life in more ways than one.”

Workshops, both single-day and multi-day, range from from landscape architecture and regional planning to chemistry and microbiology. Designed to be accessible to youth, the hands-on workshops promote active, engaged learning, to turn their minds on, Parker said.

“It’s incredible stuff they’re doing — and I have to read it because, most times, I don’t even know what they’re doing. They’re working with incredibly well-known researchers in their fields.”

 

Everybody Wins

Parker told BusinessWest that she views the program as a win-win-win. It is a win for Girls Inc. because the impact of the program is high. It is also a win for UMass, as many of the participating professors are writing the Eureka! program into their National Science Foundation grants. They’re required to engage in what are called ‘broader impacts,’ participating in programs and organizations with the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

“Professors love the Eureka! program because we bring students they want to work with — girls, other gender-oppressed youth, people of color living in the Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke areas — but how do you make those connections?” Parker said. “We bus the kids to them, and the professors volunteer their time.”

Rivera-Colón also added that “the youth have a voice in the program. Sometimes the partnerships are born of things the youth want to explore. So we think about who we know in the community that does X, Y, and Z. From there, we get new partnerships, too.”

The biggest winners in the Eureka! Program, of course, are its scholars. They’re often students from lower-income neighborhoods whose families aren’t able to afford other summer programs. Having a completely accessible and free learning environment provides exposure and multiple opportunities.

“Look at opportunities,” Parker said. “More times than not, STEM careers are well-paying careers. They can really lift up themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty. Making sure there’s access to that type of programming is very important.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 7% of total jobs in the workforce are STEM careers. Within that, about 27% of the workers are women — and 5% of that number are women of color.

“Gender-oppressed people in general are very underrepresented and underserved when they express an interest in science. A lot of it gets squandered by systematic things that happen,” Rivera-Colón said.

She went on to explain that stereotypes, especially around math, are creating barriers for young girls. But actually, girls just have different learning styles than the way concepts have been created by universities.

“Universities were built to cater young, all white men. And a lot of that hasn’t changed to this day, even though women have access to study at those institutions,” she said. “It is up to us at Girls Inc. of the Valley to get our local youth ready to face those challenges and feel like they belong and that they deserve a spot in those programs and careers. The playing field just isn’t leveled for them — they have to do a lot more, so we try to arm them with the tools necessary to be able to move forward.”

Studies suggest that a more diverse group of problem solvers will create more diverse results — which benefits research and society in general because more peoples’ will be catered to.

“There are a lot of big problems in the world, and those problems will go to scientists, engineers, technicians, and mathematicians,” Parker said. “If there are only a small group of people trying to solve the problems that don’t represent the population, then you’re going to get very limited kinds of solutions. Having a broader, diverse group of people that are involved in problem solving is so important.”

Parker told BusinessWest that Girls Inc. of the Valley was chosen be a part of Project Accelerate, a new program through the national Girls Inc. that will track Eureka! scholars that have graduated and help them go on to college and give them the support they need.

“It’s one thing to graduate from high school and get into that engineering program, but what are those supports that will help ensure success through that time period?” Parker said. “We’re really excited about that.”

 

Life Lessons

The Eureka! program was designed to provide a safe and encouraging space for STEM curiosities, but it was built to provide its scholars with much more.

“I’m personally not looking for a career in STEM, but I think the program has taught me much more than what a STEM career has to offer,” Pirnie said. “I learned it’s OK to ask questions and advocate for yourself, especially in underrepresented areas, especially in math and science.”

The West Springfield native isn’t sure yet what major she wants to dive into at college, but is confident in her future journey because of the connections made and skills built by the Eureka! program.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2019

Executive Director, Girls Inc. of the Valley

Girls Inc. Leader Is an Innovator, Role Model, and Inspiration

The phone call came roughly 13 years ago, but Suzanne Parker remembers it like it was yesterday.

It came several days after she had agreed to become the new executive director of Girls Inc. of Holyoke, but a few days before she officially took the helm. The caller was informing her that the nonprofit was not going to be able to make payroll that week — unless some action was taken.

“I said, ‘you have a line of credit — and you’re going to have to use it,’ she recalled, adding that this was an expensive but very necessary step for an organization that had relied heavily on a federal grant that was due to expire soon and essentially lacked a plan for sustainability.

As she recounted that phone call all these years later, Parker said she wasn’t entirely surprised by it — “I went into this with my eyes wide open,” she told BusinessWest, noting that she was well aware of the agency’s fiscal condition — and not at all fazed by it.

“I like a good challenge — I knew what I was getting into,” she said, adding that she was in many ways motivated by the situation she found herself in.

Indeed, within a year she had righted the financial ship at the agency through a series of cost-cutting and revenue-generating steps (more on those later) and recalls with a huge dose of pride that she has never again had to tap that aforementioned line of credit.

“Suzanne lives and breathes Girls Inc.’s mission and vision — for girls to be strong, smart, and bold.”

But Parker, who earned a law degree earlier in her career and has certainly put it to very good use in her position, has done much more than put Girls Inc. of Holyoke on solid financial footing. Since becoming executive director in late 2006, she has led the nonprofit on an ambitious course of expansion — geographically, programmatically, and in terms of its overall impact to the region as a whole and to the individual girls who walk through the door.

For starters, she has taken the organization beyond its original borders and into Springfield and Chicopee, territorial expansion that has prompted a name change to Girls Inc. of the Valley. She has also helped introduce new programs, including the hugely successful Eureka program, an innovative and intensive five-year program that Girls Inc. operates in partnership with UMass Amherst and which is developing a pipeline of girls into STEM majors and careers.

Overall, Parker has become deeply and energetically involved in every aspect of the program, from board recruitment to fundraising; from events management to marketing.

And the results have been stunning, with the local chapter of Girls Inc. winning recognition for its efforts regionally — the nonprofit was named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2018, for example — and within the Girls Inc. network, especially for its innovative programming.

Melyssa Brown-Porter, chair of the Girls Inc. board, put Parker’s impact on the nonprofit, area girls, and the region in its proper perspective while nominating her to be a Woman of Impact.

“Suzanne lives and breathes Girls Inc.’s mission and vision — for girls to be strong, smart, and bold,” she wrote. “She is extremely passionate about the work that GI is doing for girls and the communities they live in. She is always looking out for the best interest of the girls and concentrates very hard on the results programming has on their lives. Her focus is to reach and serve more girls with impact on our community.

“Suzanne has been an innovator and leader throughout her career,” Brown-Porter went on. “In tune with workforce needs and changes in the economy, Suzanne was piloting state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering, and math programs for girls long before STEM became the focus that is today.”

Innovator. Leader. Inspiration. These are the words many people have used to describe Parker’s work not only at Girls Inc., but at Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start before that and other stops on a lengthy career working with and on behalf of young people.

Some of her best work, however, may be as a role model for the girls who come into the program.

Indeed, Parker, who became a mother at 41, has managed to effectively balance work, life at home, and deep involvement in the community, meaning that girls looking for proof that all that can be accomplished need only walk down a few doors at the Girls Inc. complex in Open Square.

And now, those looking for more descriptive terms that can be applied to Parker have three more — Woman of Impact. Although, truth be told, they’ve probably been using them all along.

Orchestrating Progress

Parker joked that, while she played the clarinet well in her youth growing up in Belchertown — and later in some impressive performance venues, like the Esplanade and Government Center in Boston — she didn’t play it well enough to get paid to do it.

But her love of music prompted her to get a degree in music education from UMass Amherst and eventually teach instrumental band music at Cohasset Middle School. And that’s a good place to begin our story, because it was there that Parker developed an interest in working with young people — and a passion for helping those less privileged.

Seen here with some members of Girls Inc. of the Valley, Suzanne Parker has become a mentor and role model for many members.

“Cohasset was a very affluent community, and, with my humble beginnings in Belchertown, it was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” she explained. “The students I connected with the most were those who were part of the METCO program, mostly students of color living in Dorchester.

“It was important to me to make sure they were included in the band,” she went on. “I also wanted to include kids of different abilities, something that wasn’t the case when I got there, thus creating an environment and atmosphere where there was a lot of inclusion. That’s what I was most proud of from my work there.”

These themes of inclusion and working to provide opportunities to those less fortunate would define her work throughout her career.

Fast-forwarding a little, Parker said she soon realized that she wanted and needed more than teaching, but didn’t know exactly what. She started by returning to Western Mass. and working in sales for a time. Her career path took a rather sharp turn, however, when she saw a sign on the roadside advertising for Head Start substitute teachers.

She knew was overqualified, but took the job anyway, with her first assignment at the Westover Air Reserve center for Head Start. She spent the next 16 years moving up the ladder, serving in a number of roles and eventually deputy director.

Along the way, she realized she needed another degree, and after considering several options, including a master’s in social work and a master’s in education — she settled on a law degree.

“A friend of mine who I grew up with decided to go to law school at Western New England University, and he passed,” she recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘I know that guy — I think I’m as smart as this guy; I think I can do it.’”

So she applied, received some needed financial aid, and went to law school part-time at night, commencing an arduous journey that ended in 2003 when she passed the bar.

“There were many days of tears because I was working tons of hours as a senior-level exec at Head Start,” she said in reference to the difficult task of balancing everything she was doing at the time. “But I did it.”

And now, her very unofficial job description at Girls Inc. is to not only show young girls that they, too, can do it — but to give them a road map for getting where they want to go and the tools to get on the right course and stay on it.

Degrees of Progress

As noted, she has put that law degree to good use, providing ample evidence that such an education isn’t just for those who want to work in the courtroom.

“I use it every day,” she told BusinessWest. “That law-school education helps you every day as an executive director. I use it with everything I’m involved with: contracts, employees, real estate, administrative law — we have federal and state funding — as well as writing skills — I was on the Law Review. It was a really great education, and it has really helped me.

Beyond serving as a great advertisement for law school, those comments hint at Parker’s broad job description at Girls Inc. Slicing through it all, though, her primary work early on involved turning the organization around, putting it on solid financial ground and a path to sustainability — and keeping it on that path.

“It’s all about the mission. It’s so empowering, and there is such a need; we know that there are still gaps that exist with women and girls with regard to opportunities and pay and STEM fields … there’s still such a need, and that’s why we do what we do.”

She’s done that through a variety of measures, including some restructuring, belt-tightening, and the establishment of several of reliable fundraisers, especially the annual Spirit of Girls breakfast, launched in 2007, which does a lot more than raise roughly $150,000 each year, although that is certainly significant.

Indeed, girls involved in the program are heavily involved with the event, and several take to the microphone — in front of an audience of more than 500 people — to talk about Girls Inc. and how it is impacting their lives.

“We keep the expenses incredibly low; it’s a light breakfast, and we don’t pay for speakers — the girls are the speakers,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s an empowering experience for the girls themselves — they take leadership roles in this event.”

The breakfast is just one of the ways the organization works to empower girls and put them on the path to becoming leaders — in their chosen fields and the community as well.

Looking ahead, Parker said the obvious goal is to broaden the regional impact of Girls Inc. and continue those efforts to give the nonprofit the same qualities it strives to give young girls — to be strong, smart, and bold.

Thus, the agency will look to continually extend its reach within Springfield and Chicopee, while keeping Holyoke as its home and base. Finding a new, permanent home is one of the assignments moving forward, said Parker, as is creating sustainability for the Eureka program, conducted in partnership with UMass Amherst and its College of Natural Sciences, Bay Path University, and several other area colleges, and scaling up that initiative. A capital campaign to pay for all this is also in its formative stage.

As for Parker, who has continually sought out new challenges throughout her career, she’s looking forward to being with Girls Inc. as it strives to get to the next level.

“It’s all about the mission,” she noted. “It’s so empowering, and there is such a need; we know that there are still gaps that exist with women and girls with regard to opportunities and pay and STEM fields … there’s still such a need, and that’s why we do what we do.

“Every year, we have the conversation — am I still helping this organization, and is it still a win-win, for me and Girls Inc.?” she went on. “As long as I can still feel challenged and that we’re growing and we’re changing, and that I have something to give and I’m making a difference, I’m in.”

Leading by Example

And there are a great many people who are happy she’s in.

Indeed, Parker has become a Woman of Impact not just because of what she’s done as the leader of a nonprofit clearly in need of strong leadership.

She’s also reached that status by being an effective role model for the girls who join her program — and girls across the region. Years ago, she set goals for herself, understood what was needed to reach those goals, and positioned herself to succeed.

That, in a nutshell, is what Girls Inc. is all about, and while its success doesn’t stem from the work of a single woman, Parker’s influence has greatly enhanced its ability to carry out that all-important mission.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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