Reaching the Sidelines by Jess Larson

Competition is a driving force in sports, careers and our everyday lives. Take inventory of your own life; did your Thanksgiving family football game get a bit heated this past weekend? Does board game night descend into disagreements that require multiple rule-book consultations? Ever find yourself gloating when your sports team won?

Receiving our instructions for the scavenger hunt

Our staff is no different. It is comprised of former high school and collegiate athletes, and a lot of our staff continues to play intramural sports or continues to challenge themselves in the fitness world. Our annual staff event, a scavenger hunt around Union Park, has a history of becoming rather heated which lead to the creation of the “walking or speed-walking only rule” this year.

So it might seem a bit incongruous that such a highly competitive group of people is running a non-competitive girls’ sports program.

Personally, I love a bit of cutthroat competition. Rugby, soccer, football, dodgeball, if there’s another team to beat, I am all in and may end up bleeding by the end of the game. But when I walk into our program sites as a guest coach, and my mentality shifts. Girls in the Game strives to create a safe, inclusive space for all girls to be athletes. From the confident future basketball star to the girl that normally hides in the back of PE class, we get them running around, trying new skills, and playing their hearts out.

An inclusive, non-competitive program is an opportunity to bring in those that normally relegate themselves to the sidelines. We’ve all known or been that girl during PE class: unsure, hesitant, and self-conscious about our own abilities. Girls in the Game is the chance for any girl to jump in and play without the normal insecurities of not being good enough or having to make the team roster. That isn’t to say we don’t keep score; learning how to fail and try again is another essential lesson we teach our young athletes. Rather, through creating a safe, supportive environment where winning is not the only focus, we are able to get all of our girls participating and actually having fun whether they win or lose!YWCA 11.2 (4)

As Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman once said, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” This is a philosophy we wholeheartedly embrace at Girls in the Game, as well as one of the reasons we teach up to 25 different sports. Our program gives girls the opportunity to learn which sport works best for them, and many times, our coaches learn new sports right alongside participants. From the traditional soccer, basketball, and football to the non-traditional, yoga, dance, golf, or lacrosse, there is a way for all girls to be active when you create an environment of learning, encouragement, support, and growth.

Athletes of the Day!

In the end, even this highly competitive staff sees how essential our non-competitive atmosphere is for creating a safe environment. No matter their athletic ability, we have a place for all girls on our team. Do we hope that some of our participants will go on to compete in high school, college, and beyond? Of course we do! But more than anything we want to help girls find their own confidence so they are in the middle of the game instead of hiding on the sidelines.

Want to learn more? Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at our website.


Grateful by Girls in the Game Staff & Coaches

In honor of Thanksgiving week, we asked Girls in the Game staff and coaches to weigh in on the various things that they are thankful for this year.  From big ideas to the little things that make a difference, read more about what we’re grateful for this season!

Alia Abdul-Samad: I am thankful for a place I can call home when so many people right now don’t remember what having a home feels like anymore. I am also thankful I am surrounded by so much love and support both at work and in my personal life that has allowed me to do and experience some incredible things this year.

Pershing1Jerrilyn Arthur: I’m thankful for Girls in the Game participants reminding me not to take myself so seriously while I’m dealing with the stress of grad school.

Mary Banker: I am thankful for bike rides with my niece PJ, eating cupcakes with Elly, and playing football with my nieces and nephew. Also the Justin Bieber carpool video 😉

Sarey Barragan: I am thankful for my family, our health, and my education.

Sandi Caldrone: I’m grateful to be a part of such a talented team. Also, for the Quaker snacks that arrived early.

Norma Castrejon: I am thankful for the supportive family I have.  I am also thankful for being able to further my education, and having the opportunity to do my internship at Girls in the Game.

Ericka Dawson: I’m grateful for a loving family and peace in my heart!

Jasmine Fein: I am thankful for friends and family and the opportunity to make a difference in the girls’ lives!

Justine Kessler: I am thankful that my children have warm outerwear and relationships with their grandparents.

McAuliffeDawn Kobel: I am thankful for resilience, both at the office and in my personal life. Being surrounded by people who face challenges, adapt and carry on inspires me and encourages my own strength.

Jess Larson: I am grateful for a new job in my old hometown, and for a good (hopefully) Star Wars movie coming out in my lifetime.

Margaret Miles: I’m thankful for the sense of community I feel anytime I’m at a Girls in the Game program!

Meghan Morgan: I’m grateful for the committed and talented staff we have at Girls in the Game.

Marcella Oglesby: I am thankful for State Parks, hiking trails, and bike paths. I am blessed to having enough to eat, to have access to grocery stores, and to be able to make healthy meals. Grateful that I am living in a country where equal rights are the law, and where people are able to march, hold vigils, and make demands for those rights. I am thankful that I intern at Girls in the Game, and I am able to surround myself with strong women who care about making the world a better place.  I am grateful that I have a partner that upholds the same values as I do, and is willing to make self-sacrifices to contribute to society, to give back, and so that I may continue my education.

IMG_1999Jessica Pereira: I’m thankful for lots of things! I’m thankful that sponsors and supporters of Girls in the Game realize how amazing and necessary our programs are, I’m thankful for how dedicated my coworkers are about our common cause, and I’m thankful for my hard-working and flexible interns and coordinators!

Anni Rayas: I am thankful for key lime pie, my parents and siblings, and the learning experience that this year has been and will continue to be!

Norma Sanchez-Sosa: I am thankful for my family, health, work, internship, school and so much more.

cat-on-youtubeEssie Shacher-Hill: I am grateful for cat videos on YouTube.

Taiesha Stroud: I’m thankful for being able to provide a service for marginalized girls that promotes leadership building, fitness, and health.

Laura Sullivan: I am thankful for family, friends, and Bananagrams

Beth Tumiel: I’m thankful for all of the women who surround me who have shaped me into who I am today.  My sister and mother, my women friends, women colleagues, and the girls I’ve met before and after Girls in the Game.

Danielle Wilberschied: I am thankful for my academic opportunities and those who support me on this journey. Trust the process.


And, of course, we are all extremely grateful for you, our supporters, who help us make a difference in the lives of girls each and every day. Thank you for all you do, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Run Towards Fear by Jess Larson

Last week, I attended my first Leader to Leader Interview with the Girls in the Game Teen Squad where teens interview a panel of professionals to learn more about their careers.

I absolutely love Leader to Leader Interviews because they are entirely directed by the Teen Squad members. Teens read over the panelists’ bios and prepare their questions and activities ahead of time. It is truly rewarding to watch our teens use these interviews as a springboard for thinking about their own careers or college majors.

IMG_2028The interview with the panel of nine men and women at Gallup was chock-full of sound career advice, encouragement, and inspiration for our teens. But my favorite part of the day by far was the self-awareness activity that a Gallup panelist prepared for the end of our day, an activity that Gallup uses to train their own management.

The panelist spread out a deck of various photos on the table in front of the teens.  It contained a large variety of images of everyday things: people holding hands, a line of dominoes, a row of black shoes with one red pair, someone framing the setting sun in their hands. The panelist then read a series of statements:

IMG_2041“Pick a photo that represents you right now.”

“Pick a photo that represents teamwork.”

“Pick a photo that represents your future.”

After selecting a photo, the teens took turns explaining why they chose that particular photo. The common theme throughout were their fears about their imminent futures after graduating high school.

“My grandma always told me it takes a village to raise a child, but you can’t take the village with you,” Alisha said in regard to her next steps towards college.

Gabriella, a senior, spoke about how frightening it was to see the deadline of high school graduation looming while she still felt unsure about what she wanted to do with her life.

Upon hearing the word “fear,” my gut instinct was to protest. Fear is not what Girls in the Game is about! We’re trying to teach girls to be bold and outspoken, so why all this talk about fear from some of our oldest participants?

And then I remembered this quote and photo we posted recently from gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the first female gymnast to earn a perfect 10 at the Olympics in 1976.


Run toward fear.

That’s exactly what our teens were doing. How much courage did it take to honestly discuss their fears about the future in a boardroom of peers and panelists? To admit that they don’t know what the future holds and ask for advice? Much more courage than I had at their age! After all, courage doesn’t come from being fearless, but from the ability to move forward despite it. And moving forward they are! Exploring careers, selecting colleges, and weighing different majors in the midst of a host of uncertainties.

That is the true power of Girls in the Game; it teaches girls to run toward fear at full speed, just as a gymnast sprints at the vault without hesitation or the wide receiver charges towards the end zone. Our girls learn to fail and try again. And we’re so proud when they do.

Our True Essence by Meghan Morgan

Last night I attended an event centered around Women’s Wellness. I went for two reasons. First, I like to support events that focus on women-related issues. And second, the event was hosted by one of Girls in the Game’s long-standing partners and I wanted to show my appreciation for all they do for us. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in the topic, which was herb gardening and care, but I was looking forward to seeing Kim, our partner and a great champion of Girls in the Game.

4912011_f260Kim’s really funny and we get along well. I always look forward to seeing her and catching up, and last night was no exception. When I walked in, I noticed that Kim had cut her hair and I complimented her on the new look and asked her if she was happy with it.

“I am,” she replied. “I feel like I’m getting closer to my true essence.”

I loved that response and I thought about it during my drive home.

Girls in the Game is going through the process of putting together a new strategic plan. As a part of that process we’ve been spending time revisiting our mission and vision, attempting to put into words what Girls in the Game does, and more importantly, why we do it.

The process involves asking some tough questions, as well as some easy questions. We’ve talked about what we want for girls and how our programs help accomplish that. While finding the exact right words will inevitably be the hardest part, a number of overwhelming truths about Girls in the Game have been agreed on during the process.

We all agreed that Girls in the Game helps girls become leaders. Girls gain confidence and recognize that they are strong and capable. We want girls to be successful in life, however they define success.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve talked a lot about girls finding their voices and growing into the best versions of themselves. So when Kim told me that her new haircut brought her closer to her true essence, it reminded me of the discussions we’ve been having about our vision for girls. That’s exactly what we want for them – to discover who they truly are, and to embrace that discovery.

That doesn’t happen overnight, which is one of the reasons that we serve girls as they grow up. Nor does it stop when they reach a certain age. Just like Kim’s new haircut renewed her sense of self, we hope that girls’ experiences in Girls in the Game will arm them with the tools they need to keep discovering new strengths throughout their lifetime. After all, for most people, it takes a while to find that perfect haircut.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Olympic Athlete re-blogged from A Mighty Girl

Today, we are re-blogging a post from Carolyn at A Mighty Girl on “super woman” Jackie Joyner-Kersee, one of our heroes at Girls in the Game. We hope you enjoy her inspiring story!

downloadToday in Mighty Girl history, we mark the birthday of American athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Considered by many to be the best all-around female athlete in the world and voted by Sports Illustrated for Women as the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century, Ms. Joyner-Kersee’s story is one of determination and drive in pursuit of excellence.

Born Jacqueline Joyner in 1962 in East St. Louis, Illinois, to a family of limited means and resources, her path to fame and success was not always a given. However, named after then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Joyner family lore says that a grandmother predicted, “Some day this girl will be the first lady of something.”

Forbidden to date until the age of 18, Jackie and her brother, Al (a star athlete in his own right), focused their time and energy on sports at the local community center, and then high school. In addition to academics, she excelled at track, basketball, and volleyball, and ended up receiving a full basketball scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. Before long, however, with strong encouragement from assistant coach (and future spouse) Bob Kersee, she switched her athletic focus to training for the Olympics, and specifically for the heptathlon.

Jackie Joyner-KerseeAn heptathlon is a competition where contestants accrue points based on the outcomes of seven different track and field events: 100-meter hurdles, 200-meter and 800-meter runs, high jump, long jump, shot put and javelin. In addition to strength, speed, and agility, it is an event that requires a tremendous amount of stamina, stretched out over a two-day performance. Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s top score of 7,291 heptathlon points at the 1988 Seoul (Korea) Olympics placed her as the first woman to surpass 7,000 points, and she retains the world record score to this day.

1280-w5mgj88fmnc69chc54kz6j815d4n2f3229apbahpBy the time she retired, Jackie Joyner-Kersee collected three gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic medals, over the course of four Olympic Games, and four World Outdoor Championship gold medals. Hurdles, the overall heptathlon, and especially the long jump remained her best events, and her career included setting multiple records. Today, her focus is running a Youth Center Foundation in her hometown, and advocating for children.

As Joyner-Kersee stated: “It’s important to me to try and expose young people to the things they believe are off-limits to them. I tell them, ‘There are no walls, only the ones we put up.’ My advice to young people looking at my life is not to follow my footprint but to go out there and make their own.”

You can find the original blog post on the A Mighty Girl website.

Nothing But Net by Laura Sullivan

Today we have a blog from After School Coordinator Laura Sullivan, who lives and coaches in North Lawndale.

TikesBasketball1I have played with a lot of different basketball hoops in my lifetime. First, it was the Fischer Price hoop in my backyard. I would lead my team out of the locker room (my mom’s flowerbeds) and onto the court (my back patio). I would then proceed to not only make the game winning shot but as player/coach of my imaginary team, draw up the inbounds play that led to it. During the next stage of my life it was on to my bedroom, where the corner of the top bunk bed was just the right height to throw down a dunk from an alley-oop pass off my closet. Finally, it was on to full sized hoops on the playground at the school down the street, in high school gyms, and eventually college arenas.

You can imagine my excitement then when I saw a basketball hoop in the back alley as I moved into my house in North Lawndale this summer. A sense of comfort washed over me as the realization that something that has been such a staple in my life was only a few feet outside my back door. Over the last three months, more and more things about North Lawndale have become home. The warm greetings of my neighbors sitting on their porches is just one of the daily reminders of how privileged I am to call North Lawndale my home for the year. I am also fortunate to coach at a number of sites in the neighborhood. Through all of these experiences I am amazed by how universal some things in life are; raking leaves, running to catch the bus, hospitable neighbors, and most importantly sports.

Lawndale HoopThe basketball hoops I played on growing up and the hoop in North Lawndale are the same. The sport itself and the power it can have are universal. This is exactly why I was drawn to Girls in the Game. I jumped at the chance to spread the power of sport because I knew how much it could impact a young girl. I knew this because at one point I was that young girl; sports have shaped me into the individual I am today. They taught me perseverance, hard work, punctuality, teamwork, and many leadership qualities I use on a daily basis. I am much better off because I had the opportunity to play sports growing up.

I know that I come from a very different place than the girls I coach. Our hoops look a little bit different. However, the power of sport is universal. Every day at Girls in the Game we are providing the opportunity to not only try new sports but to also develop the qualities that sport reinforces. For example, commitment, teamwork, and respect are just a few of the leadership qualities that we highlight in our programming. Right now, most of the girls do not perceive this personal development, but later in their life they will be able to see these qualities in themselves and point to sport, and Girls in the Game, as the source.

At Girls in the Game we are helping girls realize the power of their own abilities through the power of sport. I hope that every girl I coach is able to discover the transformational ability of their own basketball hoop, soccer goal, or lacrosse stick to help them realize their own potential.

There Is No Finish Line by Mary Banker

I had the honor of going to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame dinner last week in New York at the historical Armory, as a guest of one of our sponsors, Prime Time Timing. It was an elegant affair of tuxedos, long gowns, Olympians and sneakers.

After walking around Time Square, eating New York pizza, and trying to get my friends to buy and wear ‘I love New York’ shirts with me, we made our way back to the hotel. I happened to miss the first bus to the gala so I made a few calls for work while I waited for the second bus. The bus pulled up while I was still on a call so I got on the bus like a tornado. I plopped down (after asking) next to Leo Manzano without recognizing him, and found myself sitting behind Justin Gatlin and Michelle Carter. Maurice Green and his wife were next to me, and a few rows back sat Michael Johnson and Sanya Richards. I just hoped no one asked me what I scored in the heptathlon because in that company it certainly wouldn’t be impressive!  (Don’t worry, Dan O’Brien asked me on the red carpet later).

The owners of PT Timing teased me about upgrading friends at the Gala. So to level the playing field I introduced them to all of my new Olympian and Hall of Fame friends before we sat down for dinner. As the emcee welcomed us and announced the first honoree, a 2004 Hall of Fame inductee, my full attention was snapped up.

JBS2She trained in private, mostly on trails. It was a time when if a woman ran in public, she was shamed. In fact women were not supposed to run distance as it could injure them and their reproductive system. Joan Benoit Samuelson. This woman was the first Gold Medalist in the women’s marathon the first year it was an Olympic event. That alone makes her worthy of recognition, but she had already won the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983. Then she won the Chicago marathon in 1985 after taking the gold at the Olympics in 1984 (the first year it was an event for women, just making that clear). She went on to qualify and compete in the Olympic Trials for the Marathon at age 50. I could go on and on, but instead I want to focus on something she said during her speech.

JBSA while back Nike ran a campaign called ‘There Is No Finish Line’. Benoit Samuelson mentioned this campaign and how she didn’t really know what they meant by it, so I’d like to take a stab at it. My eyes lit up hearing how this woman did what she loved. My ears listened to her tell the tales of hiding when she ran and then finally running in public knowing that people would talk. She used her talent and she shone, even when shining meant going against the grain and having harsh critics.

Isn’t it easier to shrink back? To instead stick with the main stream, to fit in with the masses? It is, without a doubt, harder to swim upstream or to face your fears or your critics. In my opinion Nike came up with this ‘There Is No Finish Line’ campaign for Miss Benoit Samuelson because everything she did in the beginning of her career did not mark the end of struggle or challenges in life. In fact she said this herself;

“You are who you are at this moment not who you were 30 years ago. You are where you are right now in your accomplishments not what you accomplished thirty years ago”.

A finish line would indicate an end which would prohibit growth, change and new experiences. She still runs today with her family and she still competes.

We are often taught to let go of our failures. To learn, get up and try again. But what about our successes? Do we really know that we are not defined by those either? We are defined by continually growing, challenging ourselves, never crossing that finish line. Because a finish line is simply a proverbial end to something isn’t it? And in life, we are on a journey, one that requires us to continue to fight, grow, cry, love, learn, try and try and try no matter our age, gender, gifts….

blogSome people simply wish to exist so maybe their finish line was some significant event in their life, but not Joan Benoit Samuelson. She has no finish line, and I don’t want one either. I want to push the limits every single day by doing what I love and utilizing my talents. That doesn’t mean she runs a marathon every day or I raise a million dollars for Girls in the Game every day, but instead it means staying true to your internal voice, your soul and doing what you do well and doing it in spite of others negative voices or direction. To be bold when no one else will be and to live for something.

Serving the whole girl for her whole life has no finish line. And that can sound exhausting. But to me and the staff at Girls in the Game, it is energizing. We teach these girls new things daily about healthy relationships, how to play a new sport, about how to eat healthy. For some of these girls, the messages they learn are out of the norm in their communities, but our programs help them to be bold and to live in a different way. To resolve conflict in a new way, to not back down when they fail. These lessons have no finish line. I hope each of us finds ourselves in a place to never reach our finish line.

One of my favorite quotes; “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air”.

Find your purpose. Live it out. Go against the grain. And don’t let your life or work have a finish line.