Force of Nature: How Girls Inc. Catalyzes Growth and Success

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On a steep section of trail in the southern portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the preteen and teenage girls of Girls enCourage, a program of Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, picked their way down a rocky slope toward Serpent Lake, which shone like a dropped sapphire in the center of the meadow.

Around the meadow coiled a ridge leading to 12,835-foot Jicarita Peak. Beyond the ridge stretched New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness. And beyond the wilderness lay the everyday world. Both places hold challenges for girls.

The outdoors can be a restorative refuge. REI’s 2017 National Study on Women and the Outdoors found that over 85 percent of women surveyed believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness and overall well-being. It has its nitty-gritty challenges, too, like the ones the Serpent Lake girls had to contend with. Planning and packing. Hiking at high altitudes, hefting packs practically as big as themselves. Setting up camp and cooking dinner.

Girls enCourage participants before the final hike up to Serpent Lake, New Mexico. (Photo Credit: Girls Inc. of Santa Fe)

Out in the world, the challenges are trickier. Adolescence, for starters.

Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to depression. A 2015 survey by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 19.5 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 had suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year, compared with 5.8 percent of boys in the same age range.

Socioeconomic status can also impact health. According to the nonprofit Girls Inc. (more on it in a minute), girls growing up in poverty face an increased risk of mental illness, depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem.

Also, youth with low socioeconomic status are more than twice as likely as higher-socioeconomic-status peers to have had three or more adverse childhood experiences (stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect), which have been associated with risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions and other negative outcomes.

Switchbacks and river crossings seem so simple by comparison. How do you help a girl navigate these wilds?

Lighting fires

You guide her. You’re there for her. You introduce her to other girls who understand the life landscape she moves through. You help her build her skills and confidence. You open the door to experiences that show her another path.

That, in a nutshell, is the strategy of Girls enCourage—which introduces girls ages 12 to 16 to activities like climbing, hiking, camping and rafting—and its parent nonprofit, Girls Inc. (Girls enCourage is the program that brought the girls to Serpent Lake.)

Founded in 1864 to assist girls and young women in the aftermath of the Civil War, Girls Inc. is dedicated to advancing the rights and opportunities of girls and young women, with a particular focus on the needs of girls from low-income communities and girls who face multiple, intersectional challenges, such as LGBTQ+ status or having experienced trauma.

With active chapters in 400 cities across the U.S. and Canada, Girls Inc. has helped, and continues to transform the futures of, tens of thousands of girls. The Chattanooga, Tennessee, chapter of Girls Inc. serves nearly 1,000 girls each year. The Santa Fe chapter serves over 500. Among its alumni are Teyannih Nomi Currier and Isabella Willard.

Teyannih moved from the Netherlands to the U.S as a kid, leaving behind almost everything she knew. Once here, she struggled because of language and cultural barriers, exacerbated by learning differences.

“My peers were not very kind, and my teachers were not very patient,” she said recently. “I had a hard time learning and understanding things in my class. I felt stupid.”

At Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, she found a place she felt safe.

She made friends, gained confidence and skills, and was encouraged by adults who listened to her and validated her feelings. She took risks. She explored the outdoors with Girls enCourage. Six years with Girls Inc. helped Teyannih gain enough confidence to speak at the organization’s annual gala.

“Without Girls Inc. I wouldn’t be the girl you see right now.”

Isabella Willard belongs to the Navajo Nation and comes from the pueblos of Picuris, Cochiti, and Santa Clara. When she was young, Isabella said in late 2017, she was “embarrassed of who she is.” She was “too shy to speak.”

Then came Girls Inc. of Santa Fe. Seven years in the Girls Inc. community—including Girls enCourage—sustained her through the death of her beloved grandfather, a hospitalization and a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. Despite all that, she trained for and earned the opportunity to go on a two-week Idaho backpacking trip with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Girls, unleashed

Girls Inc. is dedicated to empowering girls ages 6 to 18 through mentorship, policy-level advocacy, “all-girl, pro-girl environments,” research-based programming led by trained professionals, and life-changing experiences. Its programs encourage STEM participation, IT fluency, communication and conflict resolution, economic literacy, adolescent pregnancy prevention, sports participation and outdoor activities.

Spoiler: The part about outdoor activities? That’s where REI comes in.

In 2017, the Chattanooga and Santa Fe chapters of Girls Inc. were awarded grants for $12,000 and $20,000, respectively, from the REI Force of Nature Fund. In total, we awarded $1 million in grants to 29 organizations that connect women and girls to the outdoors.

For Girls Inc. of Chattanooga, the Force of Nature Fund grant supported the development and 2017 programming of the Girls Outdoors Project, part of its established Diversity Project. Through a partnership with Outdoor Chattanooga, Girls Outdoors inspires and equips girls to embrace life outside with outdoor educational and leadership-building experiences.

From August to December 2017, the first cohort of girls learned camping, canoeing, map and compass skills, bicycle safety, and the importance of clean water restoration. They got the opportunity to be hands-on stewards of the Tennessee River during the Tennessee River Gorge Trust cleanup event. They camped out under the stars–most of them for the first time ever. They became equipped to serve as ambassadors to help connect women and girls from diverse populations to the outdoors.

In December 2017, Girls Outdoors participants held a free Outdoor Summit for the community and led all the workshops themselves with their newfound knowledge.

Girls Inc participant rock climbing

Girls enCourage participant Jericha rock climbing in the Santa Fe area. (Photo Credit: Girls Inc. of Santa Fe)

For Girls Inc. of Santa Fe, the grant will support Girls enCourage.

“The grant from REI is truly going to help us get more girls into the outdoors, most of whom never have the opportunity to be adventurous,” said Kim Brown, president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Santa Fe. “We truly believe adventure is a positive risk model that helps them take other positive risks in their lives.”

“I will change the world”

In 2017, Isabella Willard gave a speech at the Girls Inc. of Santa Fe annual gala. Referring to her Idaho backpacking trip with NOLS, she said, “I am so thankful that I was given another chance to go on an adventure that not many people can experience. Without Girls Inc. I wouldn’t be the girl you see right now.”

Teyannih Nomi Currier gave a speech, too. She thanked the crowd for supporting Girls Inc. and making it possible for girls like her to grow up to become strong, smart and bold women. “With you in my corner, I will change the world.”

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