Blog Article by Katie Carlson, Girls Inc. Volunteer
When asked why I volunteer for Girls Inc., it’s easier for me to say when I’m going to stop volunteering for Girls Inc.
I’m seven years into being a Girls Inc. volunteer and I have led about twenty 6-week sessions that cover topics ranging from “Media and Me,” which helps the girls to become media savvy, to “Work it Out” which teaches conflict resolution and the importance of friendship.
Most recently, I taught a group of 9-11 year old girls the program called “Redefining Beauty” which focuses on body image. I’ve loved every girl I have had the opportunity to teach through Girls Inc., but these girls seemed especially well prepared. Perhaps it is because Girls Inc. has had a regular presence at their school for years.
My Girls Inc. partner (and dear friend) and I asked these young ladies to give us examples of what kind of messages the media (including social media, magazines, television, movies) send them about beauty and their responses floored me.
They mostly said fashion is about feeling confident and seemed relatively unaffected by the beauty standards that I had been subjected to when I was their age, when all I wanted was a cheap, ugly Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt so I could look a little bit more like the cool kids.
These girls were smart, so I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Yeah, but doesn’t the media try to tell you that girls should be skinny, wear high heels, wear perfect makeup and have long blonde hair?” My questions were met with confused looks. They weren’t buying it. To them, fashion was about feeling confident. The thoughts racing through my head included, “Now how am I going to top that? These young girls are more advanced than I am! Maybe they don’t even need me!”
However, as we progressed through the lesson, we heard from another group of girls who shared what kind of beauty messages they received from their friends. To their friends, being beautiful meant being kind, being a good friend, listening, sticking up for each other.
I thought, “Yep, these girls are smart. They already have the answers. I never would have had such wisdom about inner beauty at their age. Maybe they don’t need me.”
There were three topics left to cover: messages about beauty that you receive from society, from your family, and from boys.
When we got to boys, as much as we try to ensure that only one girl speaks at a time, we heard answers all over the room:
“They think we should be skinny.”
“They think we should wear makeup.”
“They think we should have long, straight hair.”
“They think we should be quiet.”
“They think we need to be pretty.”
Did hearing this break my heart? Yes. But in a sense, it also restored my energy. “These girls need me.”
This is relevant today, in an age when millions of women (and many men), of all ages, felt compelled to use the words “me too” on their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts especially when our society is faced with an avalanche of news stories about women being, at best, not treated as equals to our male counterparts, and at worse, abused or assaulted in the workplace. The timing wasn’t lost on me in this most recent session.
Several years prior, I was teaching the “Work it Out” program, which includes a section on bullying, specifically internet bullying. It’s one of my favorite lessons to teach, especially as an early victim of internet bullying. We would ask the girls to list every way that internet bullying could happen, and after a few examples that I was expecting: Facebook, Twitter…. A girl would shout out “Kik!”
Me: “Now what in the Sam Hill is Kik?”
Girl: “An app where you can talk to strangers.”
Me: *heart drops* and I also thought, “These girls need me.”
Even farther back in my time at Girls Inc., I had a young girl, who could be very disruptive in class, and never seemed to want to participate in our activities.
One day, we were drawing pictures of ourselves in our future professions. This girl tugged on my sleeve and whispered to me: “How do you draw one of those hats you wear at graduation?”
After quickly putting the pieces of my heart back together, and with the help of some divine intervention, I drew a glorious mortar board that the young girl could then draw her face under. In Girls Inc. training, we talk often about “teachable moments” and that was one of my first and most impactful to this day. As we went around the room sharing our future professions, I had the opportunity to explain to the class that you really don’t have to know what you want to be when you grow up, but pursuing an education is a fantastic way to get there. I don’t remember her name, but I think about her often, nearly seven years later, and pray that she will soon be wearing a mortar board.
On a very personal note, a few years ago, I had taken a break from teaching Girls Inc. I felt that I was doing enough good in the world as it was, through my job, being a nice person, and I was busy, just so busy. I just didn’t have time for Girls Inc. Sound familiar?
Then in October of 2013, almost a year into my current position at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Officer Rod Bradway was killed in the line of duty. Any line of duty death is horrific, and heart breaking, and a time of mourning for the entire community. I didn’t know Officer Bradway, but the first line of duty death after you become close to the law enforcement community changes you forever. I was at work, heartbroken, the morning that I learned of his death, and everyone around me was heartbroken too. I didn’t know what I could possibly do.
Just then, an email appeared from Girls Inc., in the Subject: “Katie, It’s time to sign up for Fall Programs.”
I signed up immediately. I thought of the young woman whose life Officer Bradway saved, and I thought about her young daughter. And I thought: “I can’t do much, but I can do this.”
And I’ve never failed to sign up for a six-week session since.
I have many, many more of these stories. They stick with me throughout the years, but they have one thing in common: I would get floored. A life lesson would surprise me in a way that I never would have imagined when I first signed up as a volunteer.
I’ll stop volunteering for Girls Inc. when I stop getting surprised by these amazing young girls. I’ll stop when they don’t need me anymore.
But they do. They need me. They need women like the women who are reading this. They need the women who are imperfect and can empathize with what those amazing, and often struggling, young girls are thinking. They need women who are strong, smart, and bold to make the time for them, and to teach them incredibly important lessons that they might not ever hear if not for you taking the time to be there.
When those girls don’t need me anymore, I’ll devote more time to other causes, but my goodness, they need me. They need all of us strong, smart, and bold women.