In a room of the Hillside Center, home to Girls Inc. of Santa Fe for the past 57 years, fifteen 5- and 6-year-old girls put on space helmets they created and prepare to launch into space. Their mission: to explore other planets and bring back observations of alien plants and animals. In preparation for this journey their facilitators have spread drawings of extraterrestrial life throughout the room. The young explorers search for signs of life and sketch what they find before returning to their rocket for the voyage home. By playing astronauts, the girls are not just exercising their imaginations; they are envisioning one possible future for themselves.
At the same time, a group of 10- and 11-year-olds spends a week getting hands-on experience with scientific methods as they take on the roles of forensic scientists conducting an investigation into a fictional murder. Their facilitators present them with facts of the case. The girls use microscopes to examine simulated hair and blood samples. They try on the work of a scientist and learn about the importance of organization, recordkeeping and attention to detail. They have gone beyond imagining and have entered the realm of tangible practice. They learn that, yes, they can do it.
Two dozen teens and pre-teens prepare for a three-day camping trip in the Pecos Wilderness. They spend weeks training physically for the demands of the 11-mile hike they will take. They work through activities designed to improve communication and decision-making skills. Perhaps most importantly, they act as a team to support and encourage each other as they face challenging situations. One such undertaking involves a trip to the Santa Fe Mountain Center, where the girls climb repurposed telephone poles to reach a wire strung high above the ground. A girl traverses the wire from each end, meeting in the middle where they must change places before continuing to the other end of the wire. Both girls wear harnesses attached to safety lines belayed by the rest of the their group, who offer encouragement from below. Thus the support they give, and learn to trust in, is both physical and emotional. They learn that they can trust themselves and one another.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of programs Girls Inc. provides to girls, ages 5-16. Girls Inc. seeks to inspire girls to take positive risks, to encourage healthy choices and to foster a sense of independence so that they grow up to be strong, smart and bold women. The programming is holistic and grounded in a research-based curriculum. These activities often emphasize an initial exploratory phase in which girls use all of their senses to experience a phenomenon before being prompted with information that might otherwise limit their observations. They learn that they have valuable knowledge and abilities.
Mentorship is another key component of the Girls Inc. experience. For example, before they began their week as forensic scientists, girls met with Katharina Babcock from the Santa Fe Forensic Lab to ask about her career path and day-to-day work. At the end of Chemistry Week during summer camp, 15 chemists and mechanical engineers from Sandia National Labs spent a morning leading the girls through hands-on activities while talking about careers in science. Other mentors with expertise in areas such as geology, art, golf, relationship communication and the history of New Mexico also have shared their knowledge. And, of course, every day their facilitators are present in every sense of the word. The girls learn that they can have an interesting and fulfilling career.
In the past several years, Girls Inc. has expanded its reach by bringing programs to the schools. The Girls Inc. outreach coordinator last year served more than 200 girls in schools. In one case, administrators at a school asked Girls Inc. to help a specific group that had serious issues with bullying. After a semester working on communication and teambuilding, the girls who had once spent their time cutting each other down instead turned their energy into making plans for their futures. They learned to be kind to one another.
The final word on what is accomplished belongs to the girls themselves. As a girl, Alanie spent more than seven years with Girls Inc. This year, before heading off to college, she was a summer camp facilitator, supporting a group of girls as they tried on what it would mean to be a geologist, forensic scientist, photographer, designer, entrepreneur or outdoor adventurer. She says, “The most important thing I learned was to have respect for myself and to know that no one can tell me I can’t do it because I’m Latina or because I grew up somewhere far away. It’s important to know that I can be who I want to be in life and no one can pull me down…It’s a gift that all girls should have.”
With supportive, generous people in their corner, girls will change the world despite what their family’s economic ability may be. Your time, talent and financial support can help Girls Inc. make an even bigger impact. Call 505.982.2042 or visit www.girlsincofsantafe.org
Kim Brown has been program director, director of program development and operations director of Girls Inc. 505.982.2042, https://girlsincofsantafe.org