Girl Power

September 27, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

You might have seen a gaggle of girls on the uptown campus this summer, dressed in brightly colored matching T-shirts and looking like they're having the time of their lives.

girlsOr perhaps you noticed a snoball stand on Magazine Street that has reopened under the auspices of Girls First.

Girls First is a grassroots nonprofit organization that has grown up in and around Tulane. It was founded by Missie McGuire, assistant vice president of campus recreation, and her friend Helen Siegal.

They were involved in community outreach programs together and found themselves brainstorming about developing a program together.

They'd both been involved in sports as girls and they knew it had helped them develop self-confidence and leadership skills that enabled them to become successful women.

A survey of the New Orleans area showed that for every four opportunities boys had to participate in sports, girls had one. And when the girls came from low-income families, they had even fewer opportunities.

"That was the light bulb," McGuire said. "I realized I was in a position to leverage support to provide opportunities for girls."

McGuire and Siegal decided to offer low-income girls between the ages of 8 and 12 the chance to have a sports-oriented camp experience on Tulane's campus, and Girls First was born in summer 1997. Thirty-eight girls spent a week living in dorm rooms, swimming and playing in the Reily Center, and trying their hand at sports they might not otherwise experience-- things like tennis, archery, yoga, horseback riding, canoeing and rock-climbing.

The girls were referred to Girls First by social workers and social service agencies. "The program was very successful right away," McGuire said. "There was so much bonding among the girls, and it became apparent that a week was not enough. The girls wouldn't allow it."

So that first year they began to plan quarterly activities for the girls, and before long they began to hold monthly meetings. The program has grown to include 138 girls, as well as a counselor-in-training program for girls who have aged out. These days, the girls are usually referred by school social workers, and go through an interview process that includes the chance to play with each other.

A board of reviewers looks for girls with families who are willing and able to get them to activities. They have to be at least average students, willing to participate and able to take direction.

"The focus is still on sports, but it's evolved," said McGuire. "What we saw early on was that not only did the girls lack opportunity, they lacked self-esteem. So now we focus on developing self-efficacy, self-esteem, poise and confidence."

In their monthly activities, the girls have taken a ballet class and then attended a ballet performance, gone to Tulane women's sporting events, participated in book discussions and learned about financial aid for college. Girls First is not officially associated with Tulane, but the university's faculty, staff and students are involved in the program at every level.

Women's volleyball coaches Liz Kritzka and Betsy Becker are on the board, as are Lake Laosebikan-Biggs, associate director of student programs, and Jeanette Jeanings, associate professor of social work. Students serve as counselors and instructors for the girls. For the last few years, the Tulane-Xavier Center of Excellence in Women's Health has provided girls with a peer health-education program where counselors-in-training are schooled to teach campers about female health, personal hygiene and healthy lifestyle choices, as well as things like communication, decision-making and goal-setting.

"What we saw was that there was a need for this information, and that the girls went home and educated their mothers," said Ashley Murchison, the program manager at the women's center who directed the education component this year. She is planning more mother-daughter events for the girls.

The girls' parents recently have become more involved in the program by organizing a raffle to buy start-up supplies for a snoball stand run by the counselors-in-training. Use of the space on Magazine Street was donated by dentist Kathryn Sturm.

"With the snoball stand, we're giving the girls a course in entrepreneurialism," said McGuire. "They're learning how to make a schedule, how to figure the cost of goods sold, and what it is to make payroll."
The girls who work in the stand get paid. Right now their enterprise is breaking even, but when it eventually makes a profit the proceeds will go into a scholarship fund for the girls. Some of the girls who have made it through the counselors-in-training program have been hired by Girls First as paid camp counselors.

The next step for Girls First is to expand the program to girls ages 13 to 15. And McGuire hopes to hire a full-time executive director so that the program can continue to grow. "We're on the cusp of our next growth spurt," she said.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000