For the 2011-2012 program year, Girl Scouts River Valleys unveiled a new program to reach more girls in diverse and low-income communities and to serve middle and high school girls when their need for positive role models is vital. The progressive and age-appropriate curriculum helps girls discover skills and values, connect with each other and take action to create a positive future.
River Valleys’ staff, adult volunteers, interns and Promise Fellows collaborate to bring this high-quality skill-building programming directly to the girls who need it most. Liana Tessum, a River Valleys membership specialist who delivers Girl Scouts ConnectZ programming, recently shared the following story about the amazing progress she’s seen in one of her ConnectZ groups after just a few months.
We currently partner to provide programming to girls in middle school in southern Minnesota. While all girls served by the program are considered at-risk, the girls in the one group face considerable personal challenges including homelessness, physical and emotional abuse, and mental illness. The girls utilize their weekly Girl Scout ConnectZ group as a space to not only share normal issues girls face every day (relationships, body image, self-esteem) but as a place to speak truthfully about all the unique challenges they face.
When Erika* came to the ConnectZ group, she was struggling to overcome issues related to mental illness. It took Erika three weeks to feel comfortable enough to share her name with the group. She would come every week and either put her head down on the table or wander around the perimeter of the room, intentionally distancing herself from the group. Over the past three months, she has come to not only trust the girls in the group but has come to depend on the group as a place to come for inspiration, sense of belonging, advice and fun.
A few weeks ago, a very emotional and upset Erika came to the group meeting. She shared that she felt like no one liked her and she had no friends. The girls in the group rallied around her, reminding her of the friendships they had all made within the group. She also shared that what upset her even more was the frustration of owning only one sweatshirt. Other students noticed that she wears the same sweatshirt everyday and she was embarrassed. The other girls in the group shared similar stories of feeling embarrassed about the clothes they have to wear and comments other students made, and different ways they reacted to situation. Having a group of peers who shared similar feelings of sadness and frustration seemed helped Erika see that she’s not alone. In situations like this, there is not a lot that adults can say to make a girl feel better. What Erika needed most was validation and understanding from her peers—which she received in the Girl Scouts ConnectZ group.
Another girl, Sam* came to group with a much different outlook. The first day I met Sam, I invited her to join and explained that this was a Girl Scout group meeting to discuss things like healthy relationships, self-esteem and how to get ready for college. Her response was, “Oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted to be a Girl Scout!” Sam never had the opportunity to join a traditional Girl Scout troop and was ecstatic about joining the Girl Scout ConnectZ group.
At our very first meeting, she bounded into the room ready to begin. We started the session by doing a simple ice breaker introduction. After the game, she raised her hand and asked if she could share something. From under the table, she pulled out a large book about the history of Girl Scouts that she rented from the public library. The book had several pages bookmarked with pieces of paper. The girls in the group loved looking at photos from the past 100 years of Girl Scouting. After our meeting, I asked her how she got to the library. She figured out how to take the city bus downtown by herself to visit the library.
Over the past three months I’ve gotten to know Sam very well. She has very little support from family at home, moves from school to school quite often, and she and her family rely on homeless shelters for housing. Growing up, Sam watched Girl Scouts as an outsider, wanting to be part of the experience but lacking the resources and opportunity to join. The day I gave all the girls in the group their Girl Scout sash, she became emotional and said, “I’ve always wanted one of these.”
The Girl Scout ConnectZ experience does not take away the intense challenges these girls face every day. What the group does is offer a safe positive place for girls to belong where they can share who they are and plan for a positive future.
All ConnectZ girls have the opportunity to participate in program opportunities including River Valleys’ Annual Meeting, council-sponsored events, camp and college tours. The experiences help them understand how they’re part of the larger movement and give them the opportunity to practice the leadership skills they work hard to develop.
*Names have been changed.