Empowering Girls to Lead and Succeed

The poise and confidence that Jade Jones possesses are no accident.

Jade, an 11-year-old who attends Paun Elementary School in Lincoln Park, is part of a growing movement within the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan to ensure that any girl who wants an authentic Girl Scout experience will have that opportunity regardless of financial challenges or family circumstances.

She is one of more than 3,000 girls who participate in GSSEM’s Girl Empowerment Program, which delivers life-changing programs and services at schools and other locations at no charge to girls and their families.

“Girl Scouts has taught me how to be independent and manage money and it’s taught me a lot of things about STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering) and leadership and the importance of helping others and how, as a girl, I can do anything I want to do,” Jade says.  “In Girl Scouts, you can grow more as a person and meet new people and make friends and learn more about your community.”

Girl Scouts discuss what they will need to do before building their robots in a Robotics workshop offered through the Girl Empowerment Program. Photo by David Lewinsky
Among her favorite activities are going to the pool at Girl Scout camp and seeing places she’s never seen before on field trips.

Although COVID has put a temporary pause on in-person meetings, the GEP has continued in a virtual format to keep girls engaged and moving forward until they can resume meetings that, prior to the pandemic, had taken place during or after school, says Andrea Evans, a GEP Specialist with GSSEM.

Evans works with more than 1,000 girls who are members of one of seven troops in the Ecorse, Taylor and River Rouge schools.  During the course of a typical school day she is leading programming and activities rotating in one-hour blocks of time for girls in Kindergarten through 10th grade.  On any given day, she could be meeting with Kindergarteners one hour and a combined group of first and second-graders the next hour.

Different grade levels are combined based on the age appropriateness of what they are learning.  Evans says the different troops meet twice each month during the school year and attend day camps or other events and activities in the summer, similar to volunteer-led troops.

This includes giving girls opportunities to experience urban and rural settings, something many individuals take for granted.

“We have girls up in Port Huron who have never been to the city of Detroit, and on these visits they are exposed to murals, art and the architecture. They learn the city has much more to offer than they think,” Evans says.  “It goes both ways by getting girls out of the city to see what else is around them.  Getting them out of their neighborhoods so they can see new things and how other people live is definitely a positive.”

Opportunities like this boost a girl’s confidence in herself and her ability to adapt to whatever setting she may find herself in, Evans says.

“With everything going on in this world, girls need and get something positive through the opportunities and experiences we are able to give them.  It helps guide them in the right direction and show them different options,” she says.  “We are so grateful we can do this at no cost so we eliminate some of the barriers to girls’ participating.”

The program’s annual $1 million budget is funded through grants and donations and in-kind contributions from GSSEM.  This covers the cost of everything from uniform pieces to badges to events and activities to staff salaries.

Finding its Roots in Real Need

The GEP began in 2015 to address a shortage of adult volunteers willing to lead troops in communities within GSSEM’s service area, says Shannon Fransen, Director of Council Initiatives.

GSSEM serves more than 24,000 girls and volunteers in Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, and Sanilac counties and parts of Wayne, Monroe and Livingston counties.

“The GEP stemmed from a need we saw in our council, especially Detroit, some downriver communities, Pontiac, Port Huron and Flint,” Fransen says.  “We were noticing that it was difficult getting troops started and identifying volunteers to lead them.  Sometimes troops disbanded over the volunteer time commitment, but there were also financial or transportation challenges.  We were finding that girls wanted to be involved and engaged in Girl Scouting but kept encountering barriers. This program is designed to eliminate barriers.  We use our resources to offer girls the most authentic Girl Scout experience they can get in partnership with their schools or in after-school meetings.”

The GEP is serving more than 4,000 girls at 42 school and offsite locations, including school districts in Detroit, River Rouge, Flint, Port Huron, and more rural communities like Yale. 

Even though the meetings are virtual and a pause was put on field trips, girls are able to engage in real-time experiences that make them feel like they are having one-on-one interaction with their fellow Girl Scouts and their leader.

“We did badge work online and we’ve had Zoom events and a couple of socially distanced in-person events for the girls.  We do whatever we can do to keep them involved,” Evans says.  “We have some regular attendees who are always calling to see what’s next.”

Marcia Jones, Jade’s mother, says she appreciates the GSSEM materials that enabled her daughter to do classes and activities online.

In addition to meeting with each other to maintain the friendships they have formed through their troops, the girls also focus on earning badges through a variety of workshops including one where they have opportunities to meet with professional women, ask career questions and benefit from the experience, example and advice of successful women. 

“There are lots of women doing things that, before, women couldn’t do,” Marcia Jones says.  “I believe Girl Scouts teaches them that there is nothing they can’t do.”

Jade says she has learned something through her participation in many GSSEM programs built on Girl Scouts four program pillars —outdoor education, STEM, entrepreneurship and life-skills.

A Girl Scout pieces together her project during a Robotics workshop offered through the Girl Empowerment Program. Photo by David Lewinsky
“We’ve learned robotics and how to put motors in so our machines could move. We go to different competitions every year and have robots do tasks. If the robot does the task we win,” Jade says.  “We also are in competitions where we get to show judges how we want to help the community be a better place.  We started talking to the mayor of River Rouge and did surveys of senior citizens to create a park using recycled materials that they could use and enjoy.  This park will have a garden and areas where seniors could play games.”

The park that Jade describes symbolizes the foundation that GSSEM helps girls build for success in all areas of their lives.  Fransen says her girls learn to meet challenges head-on and find solutions that will make the world a better place for their families, friends and neighbors.

“Our girls are equipped with the life and leadership skills that will enable them to take a lead role on the local, state, national and world stage,” she says.  “They know where they’re going, they know how they’ll get there and they know they can do anything.”
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