photography by Naomi LYNN Vacaro
Strong, smart, and bold women aren’t built overnight. A plethora of factors goes into the development of courageous women, including the examples of strong role models in their everyday lives. The community built by Girls Inc. demonstrates just this. Through research-based programming to their intentional staff and volunteers, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven is equipping girls to make healthy life choices that will significantly impact the trajectory of their lives.
In July 1848, a group of activists gathered together in Seneca Falls, New York, to have a conversation regarding women’s rights. At this time in history, the concept of womanhood was merely one of a submissive wife, one who should be exclusively concerned with the needs of her home and family, and not much else. Outside of this, women were not given the same rights of citizenship as men. Because of the boldness of reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to intervene and envision a world with women’s rights, that day in 1848 would pave the way for a 100-year fight to win women the right to vote in the United States.
This must have been a terrifying feat for these women. And when I think back to leaders who initially sparked such a major change, I wonder: what gave them the courage to take such a bold step? What skills were they equipped with to complete such a difficult task? What were they like as kids — girls growing up in a culture with challenges that seemed too big to conquer alone?
The history of Girls Inc. dates back to 1864, right in the midst of this several-decades-long journey for women’s suffrage. They first worked to serve girls and young women who were dealing with the chaos from the aftermath of the Civil War. Initially helping prepare them as mothers and wives, Girls Inc. has adapted to the specific needs of each generation, paying attention to the unique challenges that young females face in the changing times. Since the beginning, Girls Inc. has been committed to creating safe gathering places throughout the country to help girls grow up healthy, educated, and independent.
“It’s important for girls to recognize they have a voice, and that’s what we strive to do,” says Girls Inc. of Winter Haven Executive Director, Peggy Threlkel. The Girls Inc. of Winter Haven was first founded in 1948 by local community activist, Virginia Snively. Similar to other clubs throughout the United States, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven also has undergone transformation throughout the past 70 years in order to better provide programs that equip girls with the tools they need today. No matter the location, the mission of Girls Inc. has remained the same: to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.
“There are different facets to each of those words,” says Threlkel. Girls Inc. of Winter Haven strives to help girls become strong not only physically but also emotionally; they want to teach girls how to be smart not only academically but also through life skills; and being bold means being able and willing to take risks. “We want to see the girls be able to stand up for themselves if they feel like other people won’t be able to do that for them,” says Threlkel.
Girls Inc. of Winter Haven accomplishes this mission of inspiring young females to live strong, smart, and bold lives through their hands-on, research-based programming. These programs are facilitated by trained staff and volunteers who serve as advocates for the girls. Focusing on topics like education and employment, health and sexuality, and delinquency prevention, these holistic programs help encourage girls to make smart and healthy decisions for their lives. Above all else, the programs are designed to uniquely provide the girls with opportunities that set them up to succeed and derive purpose in their lives. “Everything needs to have purpose,” says Threlkel.
When asked how she has seen girls lives changed through Girls Inc’s. programs, Threlkel’s face lit up as she gave an enthusiastic, “Wow!” She proceeds to boast on how the girls have succeeded academically, witnessing dozens of girls taking drastic turns at school from failing and repeating grades, to obtaining As and Bs and being promoted to the next grade. However, what brings her significant joy is seeing their confidence grow. “Being able to stand in front of the group and read, talk about their passions, or give a presentation … yes, they are still nervous, but they work through it, and they are able to be successful and do a great job,” says Threlkel.
Being a partner agency of the United Way of Central Florida, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven is predominantly funded through the United Way, fundraisers, and contributions. Each year, the United Way of Central Florida evaluates the Girls Inc. of Winter Haven’s programming and determines how much funding they are able to provide them. After the funding provided by the United Way of Central Florida, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven works to get more funding through events that they host themselves, including an auction each fall called “Angels Among Us.” They also host an annual luncheon called “She Knows Where She’s Going” where four outstanding women who are making a significant impact in the Winter Haven community are nominated. Numerous other organizations have been generous with their time and resources, including the Publix Charities and the City of Winter Haven. Threlkel and the rest of the Girls Inc. staff are overwhelmed with gratitude for the continued support from their community.
Girls Inc. can always use more help in an array of areas. From tutoring to mentoring, the effectiveness of the programs depends on the community support. A huge desire they have for the future, though, is to have more former girls return and mentor the current girls at Girls Inc. of Winter Haven. Threlkel recounts some of the most profound experiences for the girls have been when former Girls Inc. attenders return and share their personal experiences. “Being able to share their successes with college acceptance is really incredible,” says Threlkel.
What tends to happen is that once students hit high school, the Girls Inc. staff won’t see these girls as frequently. “Which is great; it means they are getting involved and connected in their schools,” says Threlkel. “But we are really thrilled when they come back and volunteer with us, because the younger girls can see them.” Some of the staff has also watched previous girls grow up and bring their kids back to Girls Inc. to participate in the programming just like they did as kids.
Hearing Threlkel reflect on the successes of the girls in the programs reminds me of the power of community and how positive role models can leave a significant impact. Threlkel believes that not only the programs, but the insight from previous girls and leaders in the community, are changing these girls’ lives. “We want to build a strong foundation so we can continue to encourage girls,” says Threlkel. As demonstrated throughout history, when women gather together, they can create a significant impact.