Navigating the road to adulthood can be rough, but it is especially challenging for girls experiencing bullying, depression, struggles with body image or academic problems. These issues are all too familiar to the staff of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis, who spend a lot of time with girls in schools, summer camps and other community settings, according to Patricia A. Wachtel, president and CEO of the organization.
She points to The Status of Girls in Indiana, 2013, a 60-page report from faculty and students at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana which drew on publicly available statistics about Hoosier girls ages 10-19. The report detailed demographic information, including ethnicity, family income, education and graduation rates, as well as health and well-being indicators.
As many as a third of female students in grades 8-10 reported that they felt sad or hopeless.
For Wachtel and her colleagues at Girls Inc., a concerning, but not surprising, fact stood out: Indiana girls experience a high rate of mental health problems. As many as a third of female students in grades 8-10 reported that they felt sad or hopeless. More than one-fifth of Indiana girls in eighth grade reported that they had considered suicide.
While kids can make life miserable for each other by bullying, society also wields its weapons. Girls often feel pressured to conform to gender stereotypes and the media’s narrow depictions of beauty, according to Wachtel. “Society is tough on women and girls. A lot of what the culture tells us is that physical beauty is foremost in the qualities that women and girls should possess. Most of what we see is an ideal of beauty that looks nothing like real women.”
So, Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis responded, creating curricula to empower girls. “Work it Out” helps girls navigate friendship struggles, bullying and conflict resolution. A second program, “Redefining Beauty,” helps girls confront body image stereotypes and identify healthy physical and emotional habits.
A $2 million Lilly Endowment grant in 2015 is enabling Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis to reach beyond its four-county area to reach girls in six additional Indiana counties with positive messages: Girls have the right to have confidence in themselves and be safe in the world. Girls have the right to be themselves and resist gender stereotypes and accept and appreciate their bodies. Both issues – bullying and body image – contribute to low self-esteem. When a girl suffers from low self-esteem, she is more likely to engage in behavior that can undermine her health and overall wellness, as well as her academic performance and social relationships, Wachtel says. “Work It Out” and “Redefining Beauty” are designed with developmentally appropriate activities and messages aimed at girls in three age groups: 6-8, 9-11 and 12-14. Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis staff and volunteers deliver the programs using an outreach model – they reached beyond traditional Girls Inc. centers to bring the programs to schools and other community-based locations.
Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis has used this outreach model since 2009, when, assisted by an Endowment grant, the organization changed its strategic direction. Girls Inc. had operated two Indianapolis centers that served 600 girls each year. By adding an outreach model with neighborhood-based partners, in 2015 Girls Inc. brought programs to nearly 3,800 girls at nearly 100 facilities, including 80 schools. Many schools are coping with problems beyond academics. Almost immediately after Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis began its outreach in 2009, schools in Indianapolis and in the other counties the organization serves began asking for programming that supports students emotionally. “When we started, we thought the schools would want us to provide programs with a more academic focus,” Wachtel says. “What they sign up for in droves are the programs that provide that social and emotional education piece.”
The latest Endowment grant will help extend that reach beyond Indianapolis to Girls Inc. affiliates in Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Monroe, Shelby and Wayne counties. The six affiliates plan to roll out “Work It Out” and “Redefining Beauty” and expand the number of girls they serve.