Leader to Leader

Many adults I know are at what they call a “career crossroads” in life. They often speak about choices they made in college and even in high school that maybe weren’t the most well thought out options.  They talk about how if they only knew more back when they were younger, they might be in a better place educationally and in their careers. I have learned that it all comes back to support and exposure. Those of us who are lucky enough to have the support of friends and family to help us navigate the rough waters in our life are more likely to find the path that is right for us in the end. And those of us who are lucky enough to have experiences that broaden our perspective and expose us to people and opportunities are more adaptable and willing to take chances.

Support and exposure. At Girls in the Game we offer our teen participants the chance to get support from caring and invested adults while also learning about the vast career possibilities open to them. We do this through an initiative called Leader to Leader Interviews.

We had our first Leader to Leader Interview of the school year last week at PepsiCo. 18 teens were able to sit and talk with four incredibly smart and experienced women who have high-level positions at PepsiCo. The teens asked questions ranging from “how does your competitiveness motivate you?” to “how do you find a work/life balance?” The women were honest and compelling in their answers. They spoke about having the will to win and having the confidence in yourself to know you can develop whatever skill you put your mind to. The women also talked about how imperative it is to surround yourself with people as smart as or smarter than you, so you can be constantly pushed to be better and to learn more.

The opportunity to talk with women who are at the top of their career fields and have a wealth of experience to draw from is truly invaluable. And the teens recognize it. They soaked up every moment with the women at PepsiCo and reflected on what they learned afterwards. One teen remarked that the women “made me think about obstacles in my life and how I am going to overcome them.” Another girl learned “it takes hard work and dedication to be successful.” Several teens remarked that this Leader to Leader Interview has made them think differently about what they want to be when they grow up because they learned about jobs they never knew existed.

These are life lessons that many adults I know are still struggling to wrap their heads around. But our teens get the chance to start thinking about these things now so that they will be better prepared for their futures. At Girls in the Game we help provide the support and exposure, but as usual the teens provide the inspiration.

Until next time,

Coach Jenny.


Darkness and Light

We had full attendance on Tuesday. It was the first time this had happened all season. I was unsure about how it was going to go. Usually with Girls in the Game, the more girls the better; the more fun girls will have during activities. However, that was not the case that day. It seemed like the girls were feeding off each other’s negative energy and no matter how hard Coach Ashley and I tried we could not rally the girls and get them working together as a unit. No matter the activity, there were always a few girls that did not want to participate. The toughest part was that it was not the same girls every time. It kept rotating. It seemed as if nothing was working. We struggled through that first hour of Health and Leadership. One coach would lead the activity and the other would try to re-engage the girls refusing to participate, while at the same time trying to not give attention to this behavior.

It was time to move to the gym. Ever since a couple weeks ago when we were informed that we were unable to use the gym a half hour before programming, I’ve made it a point to confirm with the site contact that the gym is available. This Tuesday the gym had been confirmed and we were all set to go.  After the difficult time in the classroom, I was hoping that they were ready to play. We entered the gym and I walked over to the switch board to turn on the lights and nothing. They wouldn’t turn on. I went to the office to ask them about the lights and they didn’t know. We asked the security guard and the PE teacher. They did not know.

At that point I felt defeated. I thought about how the darkness in the gym was exactly what the day had felt like; chaos and obscurity. But we had to move on; we had to use the light we had in creative ways to illuminate that room so the girls could play. Luckily the gym had windows and we removed the curtains and opened the doors so that we could use natural light for as long as possible. We also were able to turn on the stage lights and that helped to make the gym safe enough to play in. During the short game of floor hockey, most girls participated and I think despite a lot of complaining, they had fun.

The darkness of the gym, our inadequate and temporary light sources seemed to parallel too closely to the coaching experience at Mays thus far. I feel like I have been trying to lead the girls holding a small candle to the night sky, and expecting them to be able to see where I was going. Because of report card pick-up we have this next Tuesday off. I have a lot of thinking to do and a lot of preparing. A lot of questions are running through my mind. The most prominent being, how can I enable the girls to bring their own light to programming and add it to mine so that together we can eliminate the darkness.

-Coach Miranda

Camper to Coach: Community in After School Programs

From my time as both a camper and counselor, I’ve learned the challenges and rewards associated with joining a small and active community. As a camper, I practiced volleyball on the scorching sand of my camp’s modest court and swam freestyle in a crisp and clean swimming pool under the gaze and guidance of my seriously awesome counselors. I’ve since faced the challenge of filling the shoes of the counselors I so admired; the honor of watching an 8-year-old camper finally master a flip-turn after a summer’s worth of challenging swim lessons, two girls cheer on a new friend in her first race, and countless campers conquer a low-ropes course. I’ve always considered summer camp to be as much a philosophy as it is a physical space: a place where it’s okay to play, make friends, cheer each other on and learn together in a safe and welcoming environment.  From my experience as an After School coach with Girls in the Game, I’m convinced that this organization upholds this community philosophy and so much more. In providing time, equipment, and concerted effort geared toward the development of holistically healthy girls, Girls in the Game provides unique opportunities for coaches and girls alike. Our sports, leadership, and health programming enables Chicago’s girls to be a part of a truly special kind of community: a team.

On most Monday afternoons, this is how it goes: a dismissal bell sounds and the girls flood into the cafeteria all smiles, backpacks, and buzzing, re-surging energy. They sign in and receive their name tags; we transition to the gym and begin. First is a warm-up game, then a leadership activity and discussion, followed by a quick shift into our sport, where girls are given equipment, instruction, and roughly 45 minutes to learn and play. The echoic gym lends itself well to the experience of coaching: cheers, laughter, conversation, and the sweeping scratch of shuffling shoes across hardwood are all telling and rewarding in their own right. As are the successes: first catches, high-fives, compromises, new insights, synchronized dance routines, and swooshing baskets. Hard-breathing and happy, we then circle up to discuss a health topic, enjoy a snack, recap the day’s activities, and award the Athlete of the Day, a highly anticipated moment across the board. On most Monday’s, this is how programming unfolds, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the fun, the orchestrated frenzy, the friendship.

This isn’t to say that coaching comes without its challenges. There are the unavoidable conflicts, flickers of bickering and noisy side-conversations that I’ve learned are inextricable from the experience of being part of a team. But I’ve also learned that it’s in these moments that some of the best opportunities for learning arise, for participants and coaches alike. Together, we learn to compromise, to take turns and to exercise respect and commitment. I’m convinced that it’s on teams that we learn some of our healthiest human behavior; the stretch of conflict resolution and respectful communication can perpetuate some awesome and important growth. It’s why we use the five-finger contract at Girls in the Game and why we seal it with a high-five instead of a signature: we strive to uphold the values of respect, commitment, teamwork, safety, and fun on an individual and team basis.

My experience with Girls in the Game, though different from my time as a camper and counselor, has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of being part of a team, of learning in a safe and fun environment and celebrating the successes that occur therein. As I watch as the girls flood the cafeteria, I myself am flooded with new energy and enthusiasm for what’s about to occur: the challenges, growth, and fun that emerge when we learn and play together.

-Coach Susannah

Banneker vs. Mays

Coach Ashley and I arrived at Mays a half hour before our program. We were told that we cannot use the gym for that day because there is a Parent Café. This is a huge disappointment because it is the last week of basketball and the girls have been wanting to play a real game since we started. We look in the lunch room that we will be using instead and it’s small with tables out, unable to be moved anywhere.  The sport and the space constraints were definitely a challenge, but even more telling were some of the events that happened even before programming started.

I think the hardest part about being able to run a successful program at Mays is that the girls seem to not like each other. There is a clear division in the school between groups of girls formerly from Banneker Elementary (the school that closed) and the students originally from Mays Elementary (the Welcoming School)”.  Arguments about seemingly silly things are rooted in a search for identity and belonging. For instance, in the bathroom as the girls were changing they were talking about bed bugs. Some girls were saying that bedbugs were always at Banneker and others insisted that the Mays kids brought them. The look of sincerity and intensity on their faces as they were defending their “home schools” was undeniable – they were fighting for their territory, for love for not just a school, but a family, an identity, a sense of connection.    I think to constantly have to defend yourself and your old school gets tiring. It’s easier to just avoid those that oppose you. At Girls in the Game though, girls from both these groups are forced to interact. I let the conversation go for a while and then interrupted. I asked the girls how many were Mays and how many were Banneker. It was about half and half. I tried to ask more questions about each of the schools, but the girls lost interest and didn’t want to answer my questions. I think I am going to have to get creative with ways to get them talking about the schools they came from and their experience so far as a part of this mixed school. If we can make Girls in the Game a place where Banneker and Mays girls feel less like opponents and more like a team then I know the girls will get the more out of this program. I want that look that they had on their faces as they defended their old schools- the sincere, passionate love for an old identity- to be transformed into love for sports, for making healthy choices, and most importantly for their teammates.

We have a couple of new girls that came last week and we are working so hard to make sure that they keep coming.  I’m worried about one of the new girls, Shania. She is a shy 6th grader who doesn’t talk much to the other girls. Last week she came to me with a headache and said she felt dizzy when she ran around. I asked her if she had eaten that day and she said she had not. When I asked her why not she said she was late to school and didn’t eat breakfast, the lunch they served at school was “nasty” and she didn’t like the after school snack. She said she doesn’t do this all the time, but sometimes it happens. Well, it happened again today. I convinced her to eat the pizza they were serving for snack, but agreed to myself it didn’t look too appetizing. She also reluctantly took a few sips of milk. I asked her if she had food she liked better at home, she shook her head no. However, when I asked would she be eating dinner that night she said yes. I sat with her and talked to her while she slowly ate the pizza and got to know her a little better. If I could have sat with her the whole time and talked I would have, but I had to get to the rest of the girls so I am planning to touch base with her again next week. Walking out of programming together I asked her, “What are you going to do for me this week and especially next Tuesday?” She answered, “I know, I know. I’ll eat”, with a small smile. Just to have someone else in the loop, I have informed the site contact of my concern and they are keeping an eye out for her.

Nicole wasn’t at programming today. We heard her name over the PA asking her to report to the office. I hope she is staying out of trouble.

-Coach Miranda


A few Saturdays ago, I had the opportunity to represent Girls in the Game at the Anti-Violence Forum organized by the Imani Pearls Community Development Foundation. I asked the organizers if we could bring along two of our Teen Squad members to help us staff our resource table, because who better to speak about our programs than our participants? So, I found myself at South Shore High School early on a chilly Saturday morning and to be honest, I was unprepared for what the day would bring.

I knew there was going to be a panel of speakers and a group of 200 high school students from the South Side of Chicago. I knew two of our Teen Squad members would be attending with us to speak about Girls in the Game during the resource fair. And I knew it was early on a Saturday morning and I needed more caffeine. So when I say I was unprepared, I mean I was unprepared for the rawness and the hurt and the passion for change that came out of this forum.

The panelists spoke with such honesty about how violence has impacted their lives and they talked of real stories, real experiences. Whether it was the former gang member, the police office, or the grieving parent; what they shared was incredibly real and opened up a dialogue with the students that left me speechless. Teens stood up and spoke from the heart about how violence has touched their lives. They stood up and asked the difficult questions: Why do people make the choices they do? Where is the support when we most need it? Where are the guns coming from? When will it end? Questions to which, right now at least, there are no answers.

I was unprepared for how this forum would impact the teens who came with me to this event, sometimes forgetting that a tough and confident exterior can easily mask pain and sadness. And I was unprepared for my own overwhelming emotion. In my time working with teens, I have lost two teenagers to violence and it became abundantly clear to me on this Saturday morning that the hurt is still very much with me. But in hearing the panelists and listening to the teens, I realized how important it is to recognize the hurt and then try and create something positive and lasting from it.

I can safely say that every single person left impacted by what we heard and left wanting to do something about it. I know that one of the Teen Squad members has already spoken to her school administrators about hosting a similar forum at her school because as she said “violence is not just a South Side problem.” She’s right, it’s an everyone problem.

It took a chilly Saturday morning to remind me that just as the violence epidemic is everyone’s problem, it’ll take everyone to find a solution. So I issue a challenge, Girls in the Game is doing our part. How about you?

Until next time,

Coach Jenny

Keeping My Eyes on the Ball

The first three weeks our sports, health and leadership topics were circuit training, personal safety and commitment. We were now on basketball, smart eating and hygiene. The girls, including Nicole, were warming up, and although I wouldn’t go as far as to say we were a “team”, we were moving in the right direction. Nicole is participating more, and I can tell she really likes basketball. She’s a natural athlete, but needs some, okay a lot, of help with being a team player. She’s quick to inform me that she already knows how to do every single skill and drill we try. But, today I’m quicker. Before she can get the words out, I ask her to be my helper. I explain I need someone who can demonstrate how to do the skills I’m going to explain. She agrees. I’m relieved, or better yet ecstatic! She does a good job and seems proud of herself.

During the bathroom break, she stops and says hi to the police officers at the security desk. It’s clear she knows them and they smile and greet her. She’s friendly with them, which makes me rethink my  previous opinion that she has “trouble with authority”. Another good sign, one that tells me that she can connect with caring adults, once she trusts them or understands they’re there to keep her safe. I realized I really didn’t know that much about Nicole or what she needed. I didn’t know if she had siblings, who she lived with or anything about her outside of Girls in the Game. I decided I would learn what I could, starting by calling her family and introducing myself and asking them what they thought Nicole needed to have the best experience possible.

-Coach Miranda

A Glimmer of Hope

On a Thursday, I arrived at Mays Elementary to recruit more girls into the program. As I walked down the hall, I saw Nicole. She saw me, too, and popped her head out of her classroom. With excitement, she asked, “Do we have Girls in the Game today, too?” I explained that I was there to get more girls signed up and that we only meet on Tuesdays. She scowled and rolled her eyes (again) and quickly walked off.

To me, her look of excitement was a big sign of success. It meant she was invested, whether she knew it or not. Maybe she did know it and letting her guard down to ask if we were having programming today only to learn we weren’t was just another example of disappointment and of being let down. I am determined to build trust with Nicole, to let her see I believe in her and to help her believe in herself. How we would get there, I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was I wasn’t giving up.

-Coach Miranda