Girls Inc

Alcoa City Commissioners Tracey Cooper and Tim Buchanan explain the importance of women in positions of power at a recent Girls Inc. session at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Alcoa.

Girls Inc. of the Tennessee Valley said it has taken creative approaches during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue the organization’s mission of making girls smart, strong and bold.

The pandemic has forced Girls Inc. officials to rethink its outreach methods and program content as COVID-19 has forced much of the world to a virtual sphere.

“We were looking to expand a little more in 2020, and then COVID hit, so that was kind of our first moment of having to look at our traditional outreach programs and see what we could do to still be of service and still be of use to the girls in the community while not having those traditional school-based programs,” Executive Director Kirby Deal said.

A national nonprofit, Girls Inc. made its way into Blount County Schools in 2018. It currently serves 200 girls countywide with after-school programs at Mary Blount and Walland elementary schools, Deal said.

With school shutdowns and staggered schedules, Deal said Girls Inc. is working with the schools to establish the best way to execute the programming, even if it is virtually.

“We kind of revert to our virtual programs which is not necessarily ideal, but it gives us a chance to reach girls who have been doing virtually learning for the past year,” she said. “It gives us a really big opportunity to expand our services while also offering programming to girls we’ve been offering it to.”

In September, the organization expanded to offer programming at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Alcoa.

“We had looked at running programs at the MLK center for a while, and just decided that 2020 was kind of the perfect opportunity to just try and to see what we could do,” Deal said.

Facilitators — often high school girls who participated in the program when they were younger — host after-school sessions where middle school girls explore topics ranging from science and math to engineering and agriculture.

This year, though, the programs have taken a more personal turn.

The MLK center and Girls Inc. collaborated to determine the greatest need for girls who go to the center after school and eventually landed on more advocacy-based programming.

Girls Inc. Advocacy and Social Justice Coordinator Octavia Lenoir has been tasked with creating and executing advocacy programming at the community center.

“She goes in and kind of really makes advocacy a chance for the girls to learn and to grow, but also have a really great time and build a relationship with her, so that they can have discussions about what advocacy means and what rights for women and girls in our community look like and what we can do in the community to make sure our voices are heard,” Deal said.

One of the main topics discussed during Girls Inc. sessions at the community center is self-esteem, Lenoir said.

On the first day of the program, she introduced the girls to journaling and encouraged them to write letters to themselves.

Lenoir said after meeting with the girls that she learned they got a lot of inspiration from music, so she began to incorporate that into her sessions.

“I introduced them to a lot of artists that are women that they can listen to that are more empowering because a lot of time young girls will hear songs that are very degrading,” Lenoir said, “so I tried to introduce them to artists that were targeted for them that were more uplifting.”

During one session, she played popular music for the girls. Then, they talked about the lyrics as a group and did an activity that encouraged the girls to think about how the songs made them feel.

Overall, Lenoir makes sure that girls have the space to ask questions and build self-esteem as COVID-19 affects the community’s physical and mental wellness.

“It creates trauma for kids because they’re seeing all this struggle and all this conflict in the world,” she said. “The things that they’re going through sometimes get overlooked, so a lot of things that Girls Inc. is coming up with is focusing more so on the girls and the level of their mental health.”

Follow @_shelbyharris on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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