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By Alicia Macleay '97
There is no "typical girl," says Lyn Mikel Brown, associate professor of education and human development and women's studies, and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Hardy Girls Healthy Women. Just as plants have different needs depending on where they grow, she says, girls have different needs depending on whether they live in rural or urban communities, are well off or homeless, are white or of color.
Through Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Brown, along with co-founders Karen Heck '74 and Lynn Cole, is creating "hardiness zones" in central Maine-places where girls can explore, have fun and feel safe trying new things, whether it's learning African dance movements or using a power drill to make a birdhouse.
Because girls quietly tend to internalize their troubles, they need places where they can express the full range of their feelings, criticize the status quo and be supported, says Brown.
"You don't see girls going into high schools with machine guns," Heck said. "But they are cutting themselves, starving themselves."
Many groups tackle specific cultural issues and pressures that adolescent girls grapple with such as depression, body image and sexual violence. However, Hardy Girls Healthy Women believes in looking at the whole girl and her relationships, the gender, class and race systems she encounters and the society in which she comes of age.
Prior to forming the nonprofit in 2000, Brown, Heck and Cole had each worked extensively on issues of girls' physical and social development in research, nonprofit administration, activism or support services. In 1999 the trio was asked by a local fund to create the first annual Girls Unlimited! conference for fifth through eighth grade girls. More than 100 girls participated, and by 2000 "we wanted to devote more than one day a year to girls," said Heck. Hardy Girls Healthy Women was formed. "It was a perfect coming together," said Brown of their expertise and shared commitment.
The organization's holistic approach means addressing social issues specific to central Maine, like isolation, poverty (scholarships are available for those who can't afford the conference's five-dollar fee) and lack of opportunity to connect with diversity or national and global issues.
In addition to the Girls Unlimited! conference the nonprofit now holds Hardy Girls Saturdays for small groups of girls to explore cultural and art topics. In November five Skowhegan middle school girls, members of their school's civil rights team, went on a retreat with girls from the Penobscot Nation. Near the end of the day, the Skowhegan girls initiated a discussion on their Indian mascot with the Penobscot participants and left the retreat adamant for change. "Hardiness zones give girls space where they can raise issues that are controversial," said Brown.
Hardy Girls Healthy Women also sponsors a fifth- and sixth-grade girls' basketball team through Waterville Parks and Recreation, educates the community through a free film and discussion series at Waterville's Railroad Square Cinema and holds a women's luncheon lecture series.
In four years the Girls Unlimited! conference has grown to a capacity crowd of 150. This spring's conference, "Creating the World You Want," included a "Just for Moms" program, along with 12 workshops for girls. In addition to sessions on science and drumming, a "Writing Poems, Writing Selves" workshop was led by Elizabeth Sagaser (English), and Claire Prontnicki (library) helped girls examine popular song lyrics and rewrite negative portrayals of girls or women.
"We want to start discussions about what's real," said Heck. "They're not nuts if they don't look like models, or if they don't want to look like models."
In addition to expanding programming, the nonprofit's initial focus is on building a strong foundation, drawing directly from Heck's and Cole's previous nonprofit administrative experiences. With the help of a challenge grant last fall, Hardy Girls Healthy Women is working towards a community resource center and eventually hopes to hire a staff person and build an endowment.
"There's a lot of support for kids in Waterville, especially with the Alfond Youth Center and Colby participation," said Brown, who grew up in blue collar Maine. "Creating relational hardiness zones in our communities and state is about preparing a garden for all variety of girls so they can bloom."
For more information about Hardy Girls Healthy Women, visit www.hardygirlshealthywomen.org.
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