Despite all of the pivots, changes, and concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic presented, YWCA Dayton’s Girls LEAD! team knew that their work was needed just as much as ever – so they turned to technology to ensure it still happened.
“Regular interaction over Zoom has been such a blessing during the pandemic,” explained Brianna Reynolds, youth/teen educator. “Although it is definitely not the same as being in person, being able to interact with our girls consistently and intentionally each week has almost helped me get to know them better in a different way.”
Having an opportunity to be honest about the realities of living in a pandemic world – to acknowledge that virtual school was hard, or that they missed their friends – was important, Hill said.
“Through Girls LEAD!, we give girls the space to have conversations about things like emotions, friendship, bullying, and body image, but we also share tools and strategies that can help them cope with living as a teen in 2020 and beyond,” she said. “Even virtually, it still gave girls a space to decompress and talk freely about things they were dealing with.”
In total, the team hosted more than 200 in-school sessions and more than 40 after-school sessions during the 2020-21 school year, serving 340 girls in 2021 alone. While many of the tactics staff used to conduct in-school Girls LEAD! programming still applied, they were quick to adapt, too. One regular segment – “60 Seconds of Healthy Living” – featured staff spending one minute talking about a healthy tip.
“One week, I talked for a bit about unplugging, and we found ourselves talking longer than one minute about how much we depend on technology, especially because of COVID, and how that can affect us,” Hill said. “Now, I feel that I always have COVID in mind when I’m talking about these healthy topics, in order to make it relevant and useful information for the girls.”
This mentality shows up beyond in-school sessions to weekly check-in chats and weekend Girls Squads. One focused on social justice advocacy and how girls can use their voices to support causes they care about; another taught them how to practice mindfulness. A guided art project included discussion of how creative expression can be a tool for self-care and an escape from technology.
One activity led girls through creating their own mood tracker to help them gain insight to how their days are going and the patterns they might struggle with. One girl made a point to thank staff for giving her that tool, noting that she has since incorporated it into her life because it helped her identify and deal with her emotions in a more confident way.
Additionally, these online-only connections didn’t prevent girls from forming strong bonds, staff said. “Several girls really make it a point to check-in with us each week, and tell us how important Girls LEAD! is to them. Young people have struggled a lot this year. We’ve asked them to stretch in a ton of different ways. Though flexible and understanding in many ways, there are some who are left feeling torn. Our programming has helped them find ways to relieve stress, talk out some of their problems, and find community and friends. I feel grateful to be in a position to help them heal,” Reynolds said.
It’s not just the girls who are benefiting – local educators say programs like Girls LEAD! help them as well.
“We’ve had great feedback from teachers, who acknowledge how much students need to be having these conversations. We know that teachers are stretched astronomically thin these days, and they are grateful that we are here to help facilitate these conversations,” Hill said.
Even so, when asked about Girls LEAD! goals for the upcoming school year, everyone shares a hope that in-person meetups will return to the lineup.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the girls in person! We’ve talked about everything from horseback riding to ice skating, to camping, so we all can’t wait until it is safe enough for us to spend time together again,” Hill said.