Youth Leadership: Girls’ Empowerment Camp

By Adithi Jayaraman
The EdGift Foundation, 8th Grade, Heritage Middle School, Livingston, NJ

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, young children from unstable families are more likely to develop behavioral problems that will negatively affect their development than young children coming from stable families. My mother and I had an unwavering desire to help these children in need. We were deeply affected when we saw families face the real struggles of poverty and kids missing out on the real joys of life.

Our family had already established a non-profit organization, called EdGift Foundation (www.edgift.org), to give poor, gifted girls in India the opportunity to explore the true wonders of the world by providing them with resources they need to flourish. EdGift also provides a variety of other services to teachers and children living in impoverished conditions. Then, we realized children close to our own backyard in the United States could also benefit greatly by the variety of services EdGift offers. The Girl’s Empowerment Camp is our way of helping these children closer to home.

We started the Girl’s Empowerment Camp in the summer of 2015. The camp took place over the course of four two-hour days, in the basement of a church in Newark, New Jersey. The purpose of the camp was to teach underprivileged girls how to become leaders. A total of 16 girls, ranging in age from 7 to 13, attended. All the girls were African American and they all lived in an at-risk environment in New Jersey. Each day, we focused on a specific leadership aspect, such as public speaking, problem solving, and body image. We incorporated many activities and games into the lesson plans to make the camp more enjoyable and to enhance the girl’s understanding of leadership. By the conclusion of the camp, we were fortunate to see these 16 girls flourish and assimilate the leadership skills into their own personalities!

At the beginning of each day I would teach a lesson about the specific leadership aspect we would be focusing on and then ask the girls questions, leading into a discussion about the topic for the day. Sometimes, I would start off with a question regarding the leadership aspect and then lead into the heart of the lesson. This method forced the girls to think and use their background knowledge. We followed up the lesson with activities that were thought-provoking and prompted the girls to apply what they had just learned. We also showed them videos related to the leadership topic. These videos provided examples of what the leadership aspect looked like in action or real life. We used a variety of strategies to engage the girls in the lessons and activities.  

Introduction and Leadership Types

On day one, we started off with a quick introduction to the camp to let the girls know what they would be learning and doing throughout the four days of the camp. To get to know one another, we played a quick game. The girls passed a ball around; whoever had the ball shared their name, age, and an interesting fact about themselves. During this activity, I noticed that some older girls in the group were resistant to participating. I also observed that some girls were quiet.

We then continued with a lesson on leadership, discussing the differences between good and bad leaders. We displayed pictures of good and bad leaders, and asked the girls to identify each person and explain if he or she was a good or bad leader. The girls recognized most of the African American leaders, but did not recognize the Caucasian or Asian leaders. After that activity, we divided the girls into groups of four with instructions to brainstorm and record situations in which leadership was necessary. Most of their responses involved school and sports. Next, I showed videos that showcased different leaders in a variety of situations. After viewing the videos, the girls used the knowledge that they gained from the videos to help them brainstorm leadership traits. When they were done brainstorming, we reviewed the general traits that a good leader embodied. All of the groups did a fantastic job in completing this activity.

As we reached the end of the first day, we took time to reflect on the lessons and activities. Each girl received a personal journal in which she wrote her reflections. As part of the reflection, we asked the girls to write down on Post-it notes a trait they wanted to improve on and a trait they wanted to eliminate. I came around with two jars, one for each type of trait; the girls placed their notes in the appropriate jars. These notes reflected their personal goals for the camp. On our way home that day, my mother and I discussed the quiet and resistant campers and thought about strategies to bring them into the fold.

Public Speaking

On day two, we focused on the public speaking aspect of leadership. We started off the day by reading tongue twisters out loud. The girls enjoyed this challenge. Some of the quiet and resistant girls broke out of their shells and participated enthusiastically. We then moved on to a discussion about public speaking. I talked about the importance of public speaking and noted individuals who were known for their public speaking skills, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the discussion, I read Oprah: The Little Speaker to the girls. This children’s book describes how Oprah Winfrey used her gift of public speaking to make a mark on the world. The girls were very interested in this book. I then showed the girls videos of some famous public speakers, like Malala Yousafzai. The girls asked us to show them the video of Malala being taken to the hospital and recovering. Her story completely engaged the girls. Next, the girls practiced their own public speaking skills by reciting a famous speech to their peers. We divided the girls into groups of three and each girl in the group recited a different speech. My mother and I went around the room, stopping at each group to listen. As we made our rounds, we noticed that the older girls were helping the younger ones read their speeches. I was glad to see this evidence that the older girls were already starting to exercise their leadership skills. In the next activity, a modified game show, the girls pretended they were famous and answered interview questions. Each girl had to answer a different question and they were given a time limit. Examples of the questions asked were, “What is the biggest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it? If you could make one wish, what would you wish for and why?” Many of the girls were uncomfortable during this activity and they repeated what they said many times; with time, however, they became more comfortable. This activity forced the quiet ones in the group to speak up.

Self-Confidence

On day three, we focused on the self-confidence aspect of leadership. Self-confidence is essential to becoming a leader. In order to build up the girls’ self-confidence, I began by asking them questions about situations that would require them to show self-confidence. The girls offered a variety of answers, but most said that self-confidence was needed in school. After the discussion, we moved on to an arts and crafts activity in which the girls created advertisements to persuade people to become their friend. On the advertisement, the girls were required to write down three reasons why someone should become their friend. The goal of this activity was to make the girls recognize and acknowledge their positive and desirable qualities. I helped one 10-year-old girl with her advertisement. She had a whole list of positive traits to note, but she didn’t know how to spell any of them. I was shocked that a 10-year-old did not know how to spell the word “nice.” This girl had so much potential, but no one had been there to help her manifest it. After the activity, the girls watched a series of videos related to self-confidence. One of the little girls was eagerly writing in her notebook while the videos were playing. She missed a part of the video, and so asked us to replay it for her. She took time out of her break to write take notes on the part she had missed.

In the next activity, the girls were given brochures. In the middle flap, there were questions that the girls had to answer. On the front flap, the girls wrote their names and decorated it with the art supplies. On the remaining flaps, the girls wrote positive things about each other. Most of the girls commented on their friend’s clothes and hair. They were nervous about showing their true feelings. As they continued to write comments, one of the girls wrote something meaningful in one of the brochures and it had a domino effect. To conclude the day, the girls answered three questions regarding self-confidence in their notebooks.

Problem Solving

On day four, we highlighted the aspect of problem solving. We held a group discussion about problem solving. In order to apply this knowledge, the girls were divided into five groups. Each group received a scenario and their job was to come up with a solution which they shared with the group. When we came back together as a large group, one of the older girls asked us what you would do if a person with a gun was right in front of you. This surprised my mom and me and we wondered about what personal experience might have led the young girl to ask this question. This incident really opened my eyes to the girls’ world. For the next activity, the girls worked together as a team to get everyone under a limbo stick in a given amount of time. Every time a girl went under the stick, the stick was lowered, creating another challenge for the girls. This activity forced the girls to work together to find a solution to the problem. The older ones took the lead. They tried many strategies and made sure everyone was being included. We saw these girls acting as leaders! After limbo, we moved on to arts and crafts. Since it was the last day, we thought it would be nice for the girls to reflect on their experience at this camp by making picture frames. The girls first painted the frames and then wrote five leadership traits they had learned from the camp. Once the picture frames were done, each girl received a certificate for finishing the Girl’s Empowerment Camp and coming out of it as a leader!

Reflections

Before we launched this camp, my mother and I really didn’t have any particular expectations. We were excited about its success and we look forward to doing such camps across New Jersey every summer. Every girl who went through this camp received resources to help them succeed. Each one of them has become a leader. The girls sprouted from little seedlings into blooming flowers. Each day, every one of them flourished and progressed. By the last day, all of the girls were feeling strong, passionate, and determined to change the world!

Many improvements can be made to this camp. For example, outside distractions could be reduced. The basement room were we met was divided into two areas. One was for little kids and our camp met in the other section. Due to the distractions from the little children, many of the camp participants had difficulty focusing. With a private room, the girls would be able to focus and thus gain a better understanding of what they are learning. Another improvement that we would like to see is working with girls who are closer in age. For this first class, the youngest participant was in kindergarten and the oldest was going into high school. We think girls who are closer in age would be able to relate to one another more easily. My mother and I hope to execute these improvements to our camp in the summer of 2016!

The Girl’s Empowerment Camp not only had an impact on the participants, it also had a major impact on me.  Every day I had to stand up in front of 16 girls of various ages, some even older than me, and teach them. I had to make sure I wasn’t boring and that I was explaining everything clearly. This took a lot of courage and responsibility. My role as teacher and head of camp forced me to come out of my comfort zone and find my true self. The days I spent with unprivileged girls provided insight into what life is really like for people living in poverty. Many of the girls weren’t educated and some were neglected. I saw the struggles that they were facing and the burdens they carried with them. These observations allowed me to reflect on my own life and understand how fortunate I am. The passion and desire in my heart to make a positive difference was fired up after my time with these 16 girls.

Many people underestimate the importance of leadership. Leadership is essential to success and moving forward in life. That is why my mother and I wanted to give disadvantaged girls this opportunity. At this Empowerment Camp, they had the opportunity to shine, to be successful, to manifest their potential, and to see the world through the eyes of a leader rather than a child of poverty. Now, these sixteen girls have the fuel to move forward in their life!

Acknowledgments:  The author would like to thank Ms. Shaunda Owens for allowing the author to offer this program in the summer camp she was directing. 

References

Cooper, J. L., Masi, R., & Vick, J. (2009). Social-emotional development in early childhood. Retrieved December 29, 2015, from www.nccp.org/publications/pub_882.html