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Strong girls become strong women

If you were in the crowd that watched Ashland’s Fourth of July parade this summer, you saw and heard a dozen enthusiastic young girls calling out, “Strong Girls! Strong Women!” as they carried the banner that led Soroptimist International of Ashland in the parade.

The girls were some of the many Helman Elementary School girls who take part every year in SIA’s signature project, Soroptimist Strong Girls, Strong Women.

Begun in 2008, Strong Girls, Strong Women includes after-school classes for fourth- and fifth-grade girls that focus on fun projects like building rockets or working with vacuum tubes, an environmental education segment, and field trips to women-owned or managed businesses and agencies. In one particularly fun trip last year, participants met and learned from Ashland’s two female firefighters.

The most personal portion of Strong Girls, Strong Women, however, is the Lunch Buddy program for second- through fifth-grade girls, which runs from October through May. Once a month, each girl in the program meets with her adult lunch buddy for some one-on-one talk. We believe that the opportunity to receive the undivided attention of a caring adult women adds to a girl’s self-esteem and aids her empowerment.

Each year we seem to have more girls who want a lunch buddy. This year a record 55 girls requested a buddy, and with the help of our partners in the American Association of University Women and the community, we were able to oblige all of them.

The buddies remain paired for the full four years of the program unless they move away or don’t “re-up,” which allows buddies to establish a trusting relationship. The adult has the joy of watching a little second-grader blossom into a young woman ready for middle school, with the strength to be her own person and be the best she can be.

As we watch this blossoming, it always amazes me. One year a girl was having difficulties at home and school but really took to her lunch buddy, pouring out her problems as she saw them. She seemed very sad and out of place. Her buddy listened, allowing the girl to vent. I met this girl later, after she graduated from elementary school, and asked how she was doing. She remembered me, asked about and expressed great affection for her buddy, and reported that she now loved school, had friends and was on the Honor Roll. She added that after graduating from high school, she wants to come back herself as a lunch buddy mentor to another girl.

That’s the kind of story I love to hear, and that convinces me that just a little time spent with a girl can make a world of difference. This isn’t the only such story. I often see or hear about former and current lunch buddies seeing their lunch buddy mentors around town and greeting them with such joy — a smile, a hug, a conversation. As mentors, our lunch buddies will always be special to us.

By providing a look at what the world can offer, a willing ear, and an encouraging word, the Soroptimist Strong Girls, Strong Women program seeks to support local girls to reach their full potential. If this sounds like something you would be interested in, contact us at siashland@soroptimist.net. We would love for you to join us.

Janie Burcart is past president of Soroptimist International of Ashland and co-chair of the Soroptimist Strong Girls Strong Women Committee.

Youngsters carry the Soroptimist International of Ashland banner in the Ashland Fourth of July Parade. Courtesy photo