Seeing the Whole Girl by SommerAnn McCullough

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an athlete. I haven’t been in an organized sport for over 10 years and am more likely to lean towards solo runs and yoga classes than a league experience. So it might be a surprise that I was so excited to join Girls in the Game as the new Marketing & Communications Coordinator.

But as I explained to our CEO Michelle last week, it wasn’t the “game” part of our title that attracted me but the “girl” in front of it. To me sports are a gateway to get girls to open up about issues of confidence, self-worth and empowerment. The teamwork that results from playing sports turns into strong friendships, and coaches become lifelong mentors.

We Nurture the Whole Girl

I see this resonate in one of our core values: “We nurture the whole girl. Our programs encourage physical and emotional health and promote active minds, bodies and hearts.” We are explicit in our mission of serving girls both on and off the field, and I saw this manifest in our Teen Squad interviews last week.

Girls playing ice breakers during the Teen Squad interviews.

The Teen Squad is comprised of 40 high school girls from across the Chicagoland area. These teens represent diverse communities and experiences, but they join together for a year-long curriculum of learning how to be coaches, mentoring younger girls, attending Leader to Leader interviews to explore career paths and building emotional intelligence.

As I interviewed two prospective candidates, their thought-provoking responses touched on the value of our “whole girl” experience. When they shared about their passion for playing a new sport, they spoke not only of the physical gymnasium in which they played, but a safe space to be with friends. And when they talked about their responsibilities as teen leaders, they didn’t train only to be coaches, but to be role models for younger girls. Our teens know that the Girls in the Game program is about so much more than sports; they see the benefits that it provides to the whole girl, the whole teen.

COO Meghan Morgan receiving the Chicago Neighborhood Award for Girls in the Game.
Being an Innovator

To me, receiving a Neighborhood Award from the Chicago Innovation Awards on Wednesday night, aligned perfectly with what I’d been seeing in our programs and in the Teen Squad interviews. We are being innovative every day when we design programming for young girls in Chicago. We look at games and activities with new perspectives to develop skills ranging from conflict resolution to college readiness.

Nurturing the whole girl means you must be innovative in how you teach girls 7-18 to value themselves, their role in the community and the goals they set for their futures. I am excited to see these new Teen Squad members complete their seven-month journey, to develop into stronger leaders, and to bring their own innovation to the field.

If you believe in our innovative work at Girls in the Game, and want to see us empower more girls, please vote daily for us to win $50,000 from Gatorade. Share with your friends & family who care about developing leaders for the future!


Be an Upstander by Michelle Sperzel

This month, the world comes together to raise awareness for bullying prevention and to reflect on where we have been, where we are now and where we hope to be in the years to come.

Most people, kids and adults, say they are against bullying. But if this is the case, why do we have bullying? The answer is that when bullying happens, it is often not recognized because it is emotional or verbal or we don’t know what to do about it.

An Every Day Problem

This past summer, I led three listening groups with girls who were attending camp. Listening groups are similar to focus groups, but you listen to what the participants have to say as they work out what the issue is and what solutions are possible. Each group said bullying and being judged by others was the biggest issue they face every day. Every day!

One girl said, “I hate walking to the bus because someone there is going to say my skirt is too short, that my shirt is ugly or make comments about my shoes.”

Another girl, age 13, told me, “The girls at school judge me. They think I am weird or they think my personality is weird. They make fun of my clothes and how I talk or think.”

Girls listening and learning from each other at summer camp.
Creating Solutions

As I listened to the girls, it was very hard not to give advice. The purpose of the exercise is to have them give us solutions. I literally had to sit on my hands so I didn’t start giving advice. The girls’ suggestions of how to solve bullying and judgement from others from were slow to come at first, but when they did, they were on point.

Some of the girls suggested ignoring the bully so you don’t give away your power. Others said you have the courage to be yourself – it’s hard, but it’s harder not to be. My favorite response was this: “You need to put it back on the person. So like if they say, ‘You are tall.’ You say, ‘Yes, I am. So does that make you short?’ They should know what it feels like to be bullied.”  Some of the responses were disheartening. Some of the girls said it doesn’t matter, it won’t change and they don’t know what to do about it.

The Bystander

Once the girls gave their response, the coaches and I were able to start talking about solutions too. One strategy for bullying prevention focuses on the powerful role of the bystander. Bullying situations usually involve more than just the bully and the victim. They also involve bystanders – those who watch bullying happen or hear about it. Depending on how bystanders respond, they either contribute to the problem or the solution. Bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role, although they may think they do.

We talked about not participating in talking badly about another person and the courage it takes to stand up to a friend by asking them to stop. We talked about how doing that made a difference in real-life situations and in their own experiences.

At Girls in the Game, all girls find their own voice.
Being an Upstander

The wisest words came from the youngest girls. A young girl said, “When I hear someone talking bad about a girl, I ask why she thinks she is better than her. I ask her if talking bad makes her feel better. Most of the time, the girl stops talking and then I go talk to the girl she was talking bad about. I don’t think talking like that is nice so I want to be friends with the other girl.”  This little girl might not know it, but she is an effective bystander, also known as an upstander. She made the bullying stop.

Research shows that bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help. At Girls in the Game, we talk to the girls about self-esteem and the program itself builds confidence. What we teach in 90 minutes once a week makes an impact on a girl’s life. I love our messaging about not being a spectator, and in this case, we are teaching the girls not to be spectators when they witness someone being a bully. We encourage them to use their voices, speak their minds and stand up for what they believe in. I encourage you to do the same. There will always be bullies, but we can be the upstander who speaks up to make it stop.




Mountain Conqueror: Changing the Equation by Elizabeth White

My relationship with exercise changed the summer after my junior year in college. It was about three months before I was set to embark on a study abroad program in Kenya, and I received an email from a fellow future classmate with the subject line: “Who wants to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?” Now, I had never met this classmate, never climbed a mountain and was pretty out-of-shape, but something drove me to respond immediately: “I’m in.”

Elizabeth at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro
Fighting Against the Numbers

In the years leading up to this email, my relationship with my body was very unhealthy. As with many college students away from home for the first time, I gained weight, I became a “vegetarian” (where cheese and bread and energy drinks made up about 80% of my sustenance), and I would crash-diet and exercise obsessively approximately two weeks of every month.

My body to me was the sum of its parts: what the number was on the scale each morning, how many calories in vs. how many calories burned each day, what size was on the little tag on my jeans. I viewed exercise and fitness as factors of subtraction. It wasn’t fun or rewarding, and it made me not only hate running and going to the gym, but it made me hate my body because the numbers never seemed to be small enough.

Reaching the Summit

Fast forward five months and I’m hiking up the glacier on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the middle of the night. My knee was still bothering me since the beginning of the trek the week before, the altitude of over 19,000 feet gave me the worst headache of my life, and the bitter cold froze my headlamp battery so that only the moon lit my path. But six hours later, one slow foot after another, I did it!

I reached the summit of that snowy mountain in Tanzania, experiencing the sunrise from the highest point on the continent, and I felt so much gratitude for my body. All of the jogs on campus in the previous months had strengthened my legs and my lungs. All of that good, clean, non-processed food during my training had prepared my body. And all of those goals and visions of climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro had given me the drive and purpose I needed to reach the summit.

Elizabeth climbing in the Himalayas
Changing the Equation

I realized that my journey to the top of that mountain changed my view on the relationship between my body and exercise. Now, I saw the equation as adding both mental and physical strength, a sense of accomplishment and pride, and gratitude for the gift of my body’s ability. No more subtraction weighed me down.

My body, which is more than just numbers (pounds, calories, inches), has since climbed many more mountains. It has taken me hiking across the world to more than 10 countries. It has allowed me to participate in fun activities with my friends. I’ve taken my eyes off of that number on the scale, and focused them on mountain peaks.

Nurturing the Whole Girl

Last month, I joined Girls in the Game as the new Teen Programs Manager. One of the values of this organization that brought me (literally) half-way around to world to work for them is Girls in the Game’s commitment to nurturing the whole girl. That means recognizing health and fitness as more than the sum of its parts. It is more than just addition or subtraction. It means building girls up to feel confident, empowered, and able. It means allowing each girl to decide what her “mountain” is, and strive to conquer it.

A for Adventurist by Jess Larson

Recently, I’ve encountered a spate of acrostic poems at Girls in the Game. It began at our bi-weekly staff meetings where our Assistant Program Manager, Alecia, lead us through an acrostic activity we frequently do with girls. It’s that standard elementary school activity where you write out your name vertically on a piece of paper and then write out characteristics to describe yourself. Here was mine:

J – joking

E – easy-going

S – soccer

S – sunshine (I love the outdoors!)

As a staff, we shared our acrostics as an icebreaker activity to welcome new staff, but when we do this at programming, we start with a group discussion about in importance of names. Girls and coaches share the significance of their names and how they contribute to  their unique identities. During this lesson each girl and coach  finishes up with the acrostic activity.

img_4989At a recent Game Day, I was working with a couple of girls to fill in some of the harder letters, Anida being one of those girls. A for Awesome, N for Nice, I for Intelligent, D for Dolphins are my favorite animal, but then we came to a second A. After I tossed out a couple of suggestions, Anida settled on the adjective Adventurous. Struggling a bit to spell the word, she wrote “Adventurist” instead. Before she crossed it out to write the correct spelling, she laughed and announced to the group, “Adventurist… like scientist!” The girls shared a giggle, imagining what a professional adventurist might do for a career.

Anida is 9 years old (hence the difficulty of spelling adventurous). And as I looked around the circle of girls, I was thrilled to see the words that other girls in our group had chosen to describe themselves. Intelligent. Kind. Courageous (complete with an illustration of her leaping over a fire to save a baby). Smart. Brave. Loving. Vivacious. Unique. Eager. And so many uses of the word Adventurous in all of its misspellings.

If you haven’t seen the recent viral video of 8-year-old Daisy Edmonds speaking out about the messages on girls’ clothing and why it is sexist, you should definitely check it out.

This 8-year-old is able to explain with eloquence what our acrostic poems demonstrated. Girls see themselves as heroes, as adventurists. It’s a belief they hold in spite of what clothing and toy manufacturers, TV and society as a whole tells them. At least, that is, until puberty hits.

Research has shown that confidence in girls peaks at age 9 but then drops drastically afterward. As girls enter their middle school years, we see fewer and fewer adventurists; instead girls focus on their weight and appearance, while their self-esteem takes a big hit. This change is driven largely by the media, hormones and negative peer pressure.

How can we help combat the problem and change the perspective of girls and how they view themselves? Girls in the Game provides girls the social and emotional tools at age 7 that they’ll need at age 11 to get through those rough middle school years. We’re creating a safe, encouraging all-girl environment where girls find a place to step away from the relentless focus on weight and appearance. They have the opportunity to talk about healthy body image and their own identity amongst peers. Girls in the Game doesn’t stop there; we’re teaching middle school girls to be Assistant Coaches which helps build their confidence as leaders. And the leadership training continues with our Teen Squad, where teens have the opportunity to interview business professionals in their workplaces to learn about all the different (adventurous) career paths they may choose from in the future.

We have a mighty goal and vision; just as mighty as the generation of girls who are excited to see what the world has in store for them. Girls who are confident in themselves and in their identities, girls who will go out and have the courage to experience life. Girls like Daisy and Anida, true heroes and adventurists.