A safe place for youth to grow and learn
Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a young person is struggling. Other times, everything seems normal. They get good grades, they’re active in their community. When in fact they can barely keep their head above water.
It was that way for Wendy.
“I did well in school, and I was involved in things, but I was also having a lot of struggles at home and other struggles,” she says. “And I don’t think people knew the extent of that.”
Wendy says she wishes she had something like Girls Group when she was growing up, and that’s one of the reasons she continues to be so passionate about running the program.
Created more than 20 years ago alongside a colleague, Wendy continues to be the Girls Group coordinator. Begun in response to parents’ calls for help for their kids (particularly girls) with bullying, relationships and other issues, Girls Group has grown into a safe, fun and empowering program for girls and members of the LGBTQ2+ community between the ages of 10-17.
Supported from the very start with United Way funding, Girls Group gathers referred youth and help a supportive network to grow amongst the participants, where they share perspectives and learn about gender, stereotypes, safe relationships and more. Expression through art projects serves as an outlet for learning, and a way to effect change in the broader community.
Rather than feeling like a punishment or requirement, participants say they look forward to taking part.
“I wasn’t going to go at first,” says Lily, now 13 years old. “I was going to go to the first meeting, and then I wasn’t going to continue with anything else.”
“I had been to a lot of counselling when I was younger, so I was very prepared for it to be the same as that,” she says, noting that, because her school counsellor had suggested Girls Group to her parents, she felt like she had to go at least once.
“The first meeting was good, and I was like, OK, I’ll stay in it a bit longer, but if I don’t like it then I just won’t go anymore.”
Now it’s been several years, and Lily has continued to attend Girls Group. “It’s something to look forward to,” she says.
The group provides her an opportunity to escape the opinions of people who already know her from school and elsewhere, she says, and gives her a chance to learn from and support her peers in a safe and creative environment.
“Now I find it a lot easier to make friends, and easier when people ask me questions, I’m more open to answering them … We’ve learned ways to not mind what other people tell us … and work with anxiety and stress,” says Lily.
An aspect to accomplishing this is providing creative outlets for attendees to work through and express feelings, and communicate with the broader community.
Groups have taken on a variety of projects over the years, says Wendy, from videos to zine making, and creating artwork full of empowering messages for a custom snowboard. The snowboard was auctioned off, ending up in the hands of a 15-year-old girl and extending the reach and lessons of Girls Group.
The program also includes peer facilitators, teaching young women how to lead the groups.
Zara began as a speaker, discussing eating disorders, body image and social media pressure, but decided to get more involved.
She says, in addition to acting as a role-model, Girls Group continues to help her as well.
“It makes me feel like I’m not alone,” says Zara. “I’m 20 years old, I’m technically an adult, I’m in university, I have my own apartment and I do all these things as an adult, and yet I still deal with the same body image concerns that 14-year-old girls deal with.”
“When we are having these conversations, it makes us realize we are not alone, and I think that that is so important,” says Zara.
Wendy has overseen the Girls Group as it changes and grows, now offering their support to not just those who identify as girls but the broader LGBTQ2+ community as well.
And United Way has been proud to be there from the start.
“United Way was our only funder for a long time, and they’ve consistently funded us over the years,
“The money is impacting these programs directly, but the spin-off is huge, because … you’re impacting not just that girl’s individual life, but also her family and her social networks, and we've been able to have impact across the community in terms of the projects that the girls have been part of, just out in the community and creating awareness and actually being role models in the community, to show what young people are experiencing, and how to make change. So I think the United Way dollars – they help us to create that larger impact.”