Seeing Beyond My Neighborhood by Mily Garcia

Mily is a member of our Teen Squad program which is comprised of high school girls from across Chicago. They receive training from Girls in the Game on how to lead healthy-lifestyle workshops for younger girls and educate adult women on the needs of girls through Leader-to-Leader Interviews while earning scholarship funds for college.

Growing up in Cicero I was well aware that our community was about 95% Latino. Everything from the shops and restaurants on the street to the TV shows I watched at home were predominantly Latino oriented. To my naive expectations, I assumed everyone was familiar with my culture. I have to say, that was extremely narrow-minded of me because I myself was not aware of others’ cultures.

As I entered adolescence I began to notice how my cousins who lived in Chicago had complex personalities and were well-rounded when expressing themselves. I soon became interested in wanting to be someone who was comfortable in any environment as well as someone who made everyone around her comfortable. The only way this would become a possibility for me would be by joining organizations that were outside of my reach.

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Mily with her Teen Squad friends and Girls in the Game coaches.

This finally happened at an ACT summer prep, when I was introduced by a peer to Girls in the Game. I have been enrolled in Girls in the Game for three years now as a Teen Coach and to this day I can genuinely say it has been my biggest life-changer. Along with other teen coaches, I have helped lead workshops all over Chicago and have participated in interviews with such unique companies and organizations I would have never imagined existed.

I love to think of this program as a two-way highway that both provides for teen girls in the area but also allows for us to give back. From spreading awareness on physical and mental health to being granted an internship, the doors Girls in the Game opens for us are countless. What is important is that between the fine lines, my brain was normalizing diversity. I was becoming more comfortable with myself and I was finding happiness in the act of giving.

During a Leader to Leader Interview with Girls in the Game and Fay Servicing back in 2016, I was struck by the evident talent that could be found within the office. When the CEO gave a powerful speech regarding the recession of 2009 and Fay Servicing’s primary goal to keep tenants in their homes, I couldn’t hope but notice the passion with which he expressed himself.

Later that year at our Girls in the Game Field of Dreams Gala, I noticed Fay Servicing was occupying the table right next to ours. Throughout the event I constantly fought my fears and by the end of the night I had decided to approach their table. I began by presenting myself and summarizing my future goals. With a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes I tried rushing to the part where I asked for the opportunity to be mentored by them. I was dumbfounded when Ed Fay, their CEO, offered an official internship over the summer.

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Mily with her two mentors at Fay Servicing, Bianca and Ed.

That summer I was mentored by two of their incredible employees, Bianca Cruz and Ed Watson. I learned about finance, the mortgage industry, the housing market, and what it takes to develop a company like Fay Servicing. However, I was also subconsciously learning about people. We all possess different talents and aspire to different goals, and that is what makes diversity so complex. Inside the walls of Fay Servicing were people with unique hobbies outside of work, unique backgrounds, cultures, and mindsets. All it took was a common ground to unite every individual’s strength as one. Every employee at Fay understands that a homeowner is more than a loan number, therefore it becomes everyone’s interest to give their job their best every day for the sake of helping others.

When we focus on giving and celebrating everyone’s strengths, we realize our similarities outweigh our differences. It is such a beautiful feeling to collectively embrace learning about different cultures. After all, goals that appear hard to fulfill are only greater in worthiness. Therefore, it is only on us to decide today is the day we start embracing each other’s’ diverse personalities and customs regardless.

I have learned that diversity has ZERO boundaries!…and no limits. It’s okay that achieving diversity will always be progressive. Diversity means race, perspectives, interests, personality types, place of birth, childhood home, all which ties back to EXPERIENCE, and there is no way any person shares the exact same experiences as anyone else. Girls in the Game knows exactly how to tie the differences together.

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How Our Girls Connect With Each Other by Hannah Butler

Girls huddle together in the gymnasium, bouncing on their knees, practically halfway off the ground. Their fingertips wriggle excitedly, ready to shoot up in the air like rockets. The girl in front of the group announces, “My name is Jaida and I like laughing.” Desperately and excitedly the girls wave their arms, begging to be picked. After scanning the crowd Jaida points and says, “Asia.” Asia squeals and jumps to her feet. She links arms with Jaida and declares with a smile on her face, “I can connect with that!”

“I Can Connect with That” is one of several activities we use to learn about diversity at Girls in the Game. In this rare instance all the girls agreed with Jaida, because who doesn’t like laughing? But this isn’t always the case.

“My name is Asia and I like carrots.” Some girls raise their hands, others leave them in their laps. Throughout the game, the girls see a variety of similarities and differences displayed among their team. Some of their teammates like cats, while others prefer dogs. Some girls love avocados while others hate them. As more participants get up to share their favorite things with the group, the girls learn that they have different favorite seasons, hobbies, subjects in school and family structures.

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Hannah playing with her girls at an After School program

At Girls in the Game we celebrate diversity. We encourage girls to be themselves and make new friends. We challenge them to work together in spite of their differences and recognize the beauty of a diverse team. Our programming provides supportive environments where girls can think, play and grow in their own ways, while still belonging to the Girls in the Game team. As our values read, “We are stronger as a whole team than we are as individuals and we recognize the unique contributions of all.”

“I Can Connect With That” ends when each girl has been picked to share something she likes. The last participant links arms with the first, creating a circle in which everyone is connected. When the game is over the girls sit down and I ask them, “What would it be like if everyone on this team was the same?” Shuffling in silence, they think for a moment until one participant shouts, “It would be boring!”

I think she is right.

A diverse team makes for a healthy team. It would be boring if we were exactly the same. Some of us have to love avocados, and others have to hate them. But while we gladly celebrate our differences, I think we can all agree on one thing: We love Girls in the Game.

Diversity is More Than a Number by Madie Anderson

“How is your organization, by any definition, diverse? Why is diversity important to your organization?”

“How does the organization’s staff reflect the diversity of the communities served?”

I see these questions day after day on most grant applications. The majority of the time these questions require reporting on demographics, specifically age, gender and race or ethnicity of the population Girls in the Game serves through our programs. While those statistics offer a concrete way of measuring diversity in an organization, I believe diversity extends beyond simply how a person looks or where s/he comes from.

At Girls in the Game we celebrate diversity; we recognize the contributions of all and that we are stronger as a whole than as individuals. Not only do we recognize differences, we are also mindful of our similarities and allow both to bring us together.

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Girls from different cultures and neighborhoods connect in our programs.

This is best exemplified by our Diversity Huddle activity in which a group of girls is read a series of commands; “Find a teammate who has the same number of siblings as you, find a teammate who shares your favorite sports, find a teammate who is the same race as you, find a teammate who is a different ethnicity from you, find a teammate who speaks a different language as you…etc.” The activity not only prompts girls to find similarities, but also the differences among them.

After girls have found these different pairings, the coaches ask the girls, “What are the benefits of having diverse members on our team and why is it important to learn about each other’s similarities and differences?”

The coaches stress how we can learn from each other, why it’s important to learn that everyone has unique qualities that make them who they are and how we can use everyone’s ideas and talents. When we know more about each other, we become a closer and stronger team.

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Girls playing team building activities at Summer Camp

One of my favorite ways we highlight the value of diversity is through our annual Summer Camp. Working in 27 Chicago neighborhoods, our Summer Camp brings girls from all of these communities together to be active, have fun and learn from each other in a collaborative and safe environment.

Culture from neighborhood to neighborhood varies so radically, and shapes the outlook, personalities, and beliefs of each unique participant. Summer Camp supports friendships and builds networks of support for girls that extends across the city of Chicago.

I could go on about the meaningful relationships that are forged and nurtured each summer. I could tell you how these friendships bring participants back year after year, but I think it’s even more meaningful in the girls’ words:

‘Being a camper I learned to survive around people with different personalities. Group activities helped push me to interact with people different from me’

‘My favorite memory from summer camp is…just being able to make friends. I got a support system out of being a camper’

‘It has helped me try and get to know people I don’t know and be more outspoken. It has helped me make new friends that I will have for a lifetime’

Those are just three testimonies of the 40,000 girls we have empowered though our programming. I could go on mentioning the thousands of new friends, new experiences, and new perspectives thanks to Girls in the Game. But I’ll leave you with this: Summer Camp brings girls together who would otherwise never learn from each other’s differences and similarities. Summer Camp allows girls to create friendships across communities and support Chicago in becoming a closer, stronger team.

 

 

 

 

 

When a Girl Tris, We All Succeed by Alicia DiFabio

Triathlon — it’s a swim, a bike and a run all done in succession. To a grown woman like myself, it sounded incredibly daunting. Maybe even impossible given my fitness level at the time. Triathlon seemed like something only a lifelong elite athlete would do, not a middle-aged mother of four who hadn’t run a single step since age 12, been on a bike since age 21, and could only keep afloat using side stroke and doggy paddle (neither of which could get me very far). But, when triathlon mania overtook the women in my small town, I found myself swept up in the excitement. Next thing I knew, I was doing what I once believed was impossible. I was crossing the finish line of my first triathlon… and it was as transformative and empowering as I had been told.

I went into triathlon thinking it was a way to improve my long-ignored fitness, which it did. I wasn’t expecting the new friendships I made, the positive impact it had on my daughters who watched my journey and the significant increase in my confidence. I carry that confidence with me daily. It serves as a touchstone when life throws me challenges. Doing my first triathlon back in 2014 showed me I could not only survive difficult things, but thrive in surmounting them. The tools required to successfully navigate the hills and valleys in our life’s journey are parallel to racing in a triathlon: preparation, mental toughness, perseverance, courage, a dash of an adventurous spirit and a tribe of women to help you press on even when you want to quit.

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Imagine that feeling of strength and confidence I described and now imagine providing an opportunity for a young girl to have that same feeling; a young girl poised on the edge of those challenging tween and teen years, ready to navigate a myriad of inescapable sociocultural pressures. Body image, insecurity, dating and peer pressures, social media drama and bullying can all chip away at a girl’s developing self-esteem.

Sports, whether competitive and organized or fun and recreational, have been long identified as a buffer. Girls who are involved in sports not only reduce their risk of obesity and a laundry list of medical problems, but also are less likely to get involved with drugs and struggle with mental health issues. However, there is one problem — many girls either don’t have the opportunity, time, confidence or resources to join an organized team. Perhaps they feel insecure with their athletic ability, or it could be lack of accessibility, opportunity, mentorship, or financial resources. The irony is that the girls who face the most barriers to sport participation are often the girls who would benefit the most. That’s why Girls in the Game is so important and is making such a positive impact in the lives of at-risk girls.

I discovered the Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team during my research for a book I was writing about women in triathlon. I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the volunteer triathlon coaches, Miranda Hauser, to learn more about this incredible program. I was so impressed and inspired by this program, that I featured the Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team in Chapter 17 of my book (which was published with VeloPress and released April 2017).

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The Girls in the Game Youth Triathlon Team is a 10-week training program offered over the summer, designed for girls between the ages of 7 and 14. The program is free, participation is voluntary, and because of the limited number of spots, there is a wait list every year. The girls meet for two hours of coached sessions once a week, spending time building confidence and conditioning their bodies in each discipline. Though the girls come from different schools in the area, they develop that “team bond” through training. The program culminates in all the girls participating in a local race together. “They all cross the finish line,” Miranda tells me. “We promote that you cheer on your team. The older girls who finish earlier will run back and run with the younger ones.”

The American Heart Association recommends children, starting at the age of two, get a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity each day, but sadly the average girl falls short of this standard. The benefits of exercise in youth is quite profound. Physical activity is directly correlated with overall health and fitness, ability to manage stress, mental health and even improved cognitive performance. Training for a triathlon most certainly yields these benefits.

But, there are other collateral benefits unique to the sport of triathlon. Those benefits include self-esteem, confidence and “belongingness.” Why is triathlon so transformative and empowering? Well, because it’s hard — a girl might not know how to swim, or might be wobbly on a bike or believe she “can’t” run. Even someone relatively confident in all three activities can be intimidated by doing all three in a row!

But, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Triathlon is also one of those sports that is focused on personal best rather than “winning.” The competition is within, not outside of, ourselves. When a sport becomes about self-improvement over external competition it appeals to those with more “non-competitive” personalities. Triathlon, at a recreational level, truly is about running your own race. Finishing is winning. Finally, while triathlon is an individual sport, when girls train together, it gives them all the positive benefits of being on a team — support, mentorship, camaraderie, belonging and friendship.

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When the girls on the Girls in the Game Triathlon Team finish the program, and finish the race, they have accomplished more than learning how to swim, bike, and run. They have learned what it means to support each other. They understand the depth of their own strength when they push back against the desire to quit and keep going through the fear and the doubt or the physical discomfort. They walk away with the confidence and increased self-esteem that comes from doing what was once thought impossible.

Completing a triathlon may not solve every problem, eliminate life stressors, or create an unencumbered path to immediate success. But it’s a tool, a growth experience not everyone can have. It’s one positive experience that unfolds a larger transformation. A girl who runs across that finish line, no matter how fast or how slow, steps directly into her power. And an empowered girl grows into an empowered woman. She becomes a positive force in the community as a future leader, role model, possibly a mother, educator, or activist. When a girl tris, it changes something inside of her which cannot be contained. When a girl tris, and her confidence soars, it ripples out into the world. When a girl tris, we collectively, as a community of women, succeed.

Alicia DiFabio, Psy. D. is a writer with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, the mother of four girls, a recreational triathlete, and a board member of the nation’s largest all-female triathlon club. She is the author of Women Who Tri: A Reluctant Journey Into the Heart of America’s Newest Obsession.