Ellen Ludtke, Editor-in-Chief
For many people, middle school is or was a time of maturation and figuring out their niche within their school and community. Middle school is often called one of the toughest stages of youth as all the pressures and responsibilities of growing up add onto each other: School gets harder, sports and extracurriculars become increasingly competitive, and friend groups encounter problems; meanwhile, the omnipresence of social media magnifies these adolescent pressures.
In navigating these challenges, many kids, especially girls, find it helpful to talk through their thoughts and feelings and get advice on how to find solutions to their problems. Cue LiveGirl, a local non-profit organization providing year-round mentoring and leadership opportunities to middle school girls across Fairfield County. Though LiveGirl was officially created back in 2015 by founder and mother Sheri West, in three years, nearly 200 young girls have become involved with the program to build unity, leadership skills, and confidence.
Growing up in Michigan, Ms. West attended Michigan State University for both undergraduate and graduate school. From there, she worked for General Electric, rising to a senior position in a company of 300,000 people. She credits her accomplishments to the GE Women’s Network, a program where she was mentored by older women in upper positions within the company. The success she found with mentoring through the Network was what primarily inspired her to start LiveGirl. “There were a lot of people who believed in me and mentored me along the way [at GE],” Ms. West said. “I started LiveGirl to pay it forward to the next generation of young girls and to prepare them to become future leaders.”
One of the major goals of LiveGirl is to provide year-round leadership programs to allow each girl to have multiple different experiences and form deeper connections. During the school year, the LiveGirlTalk program provides a small group discussion setting where girls can talk about issues that they face in school and give each other advice. Each group has a mentor, usually a middle school teacher, who is trained in the LiveGirlTalk curriculum and helps guide discussion and encourage participation so girls can develop social skills and high self-esteem.
In addition to LiveGirlTalk, the LiveGirl Leadership Series is also offered every month during the year. Each Leadership Series event is centered around an inspirational female keynote speaker, followed by group discussion and activities. Similar to LiveGirlTalk, the objective of the Leadership Series is to give girls an outlet to talk about their lives and meet new people while also introducing them to positive role models.
The girls’ experiences in the school-year programming culminate in July, when 125 middle school girls and 25 high school girls are brought together for Camp LiveGirl. This week-long day camp is a combination of the small-group mentoring of LiveGirl talk and speaker workshops of the Leadership Series, while also offering “camp-ey” activities such as multi-sports, musical theater, and STEM and ‘HERstory’ classes.
While all of these different aspects of Camp LiveGirl allow participants to further their leadership skills and self-confidence, the “magical component” is bringing girls from different schools together in a positive environment. “With your school friends, you’re always ‘that girl’,” Ms. West said. “But when you can step out and make connections with other girls, you have the freedom to try new things, to explore new passions and interests, and really to become the most confident you.”
In creating LiveGirl, Ms. West decided to tailor the program toward middle school girls because she feels it is a point in time where girls are most vulnerable but are most open to their peers. “In middle school, that’s the time where you replace your parents with peers as key influencers, so kids stop listening to their parents,” she said. “If we can subtly insert these other older mentors into their lives and give them those positive messages they need, it’s powerful.”
Senior Katie Kurz, who started her involvement with LiveGirl during their very first session of summer camp in 2015, saw how Camp LiveGirl allowed the girls to form close and meaningful friendships. “Come the last day of camp, the girls don’t want to leave. They’re crying and hugging, and exchanging their Snapchats and Instagrams,” she said. “Yet, five days earlier, they were complete strangers from completely different backgrounds. It’s amazing to see how close they can get in such a short amount of time.”
Junior Erin Corbett, who is actively involved with the LiveGirlTalk and Leadership Series programming, also saw the power of LiveGirl through the young girls that pass through the program, something which has inspired her. “Some of the girls are from low-income families, and thus don’t have many opportunities to get inspiration from successful women. But, through this program, they are exposed to new experiences with new people, and can better their own personal experiences through what they learn in the mentoring sessions throughout the year,” she said. “Being a part of LiveGirl has greatly impacted me as I have drawn my own inspiration from these girls who have the courage to better their own situations.”
Beyond the mentoring sessions, Leadership Series, and summer camp, LiveGirl seeks to send its message through social media. The organization’s following on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube attracts girls inside and outside of Fairfield County to embrace themselves and promote positivity that transcends the negative influence social media can have. “75% of teen girls are on social media every single day. But only 36% of them will say that they enjoy it, compared to, say, 80% of teen girls who say that they enjoy music,” Ms. West said. “You see all this stuff out there, and you feel this pressure to be somehow cooler or prettier, and to keep up with that highlight reel that’s on social media. We feel very strongly about having a positive impact on girl culture, and we’re trying to provide positive, inspirational resources for girls.”
LiveGirl’s impact goes beyond Fairfield County as it spreads its positive message locally and even throughout the world. Through all the programs and outlets that LiveGirl has to reach out to girls, the goal is the same: To give girls the skills to be successful and happy. “I think our message can resonate globally, so we want to keep going with LiveGirl,” Ms. West said. “If we can empower these middle school girls and give them the confidence and the leadership skills to set them on the right track, it’s going to have lifelong dividends for them.”
*Photo contributed by Sheri West