31 July 2013

Girls, Games and Growing Up

With plenty of encouragement to go around, Girls in the Game uses a mix of fitness, nutrition and fun to inspire and empower girls to reach their potential.

In the midst of another gorgeous summer day in Chicago, dozens of girls, ages 7-15, gather inside the Union Park fieldhouse. They’re separated into groups based on age, but regardless of where they sit, friendships are quick to form.

“I’ve made a lot of friends at camp, lots and lots,” said Kennedy, 13. “Camp is more fun than school because we all get to do fun things together and there’s a lot of support from everyone. You feel good here.”

“Here” is Girls in the Game, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and fitness of girls in the Chicago area. The program’s five-week summer camp is intensive in exercise, social and emotional skills.

“We’re been around for almost 19 years,” said Amy Skeen, the program’s President and CEO. “We were first started because our founding board members really attributed their own professional success and their ability to work on a team and their confidence levels to having had a chance to play sports as girls. They were really shocked to learn that in 1995 there were very few opportunities in the city of Chicago to be involved in those types of activities. Today that is a very similar case, which is why Girls in the Game is so important.”

The three pillars of the program’s philosophy play out in morning activity rotations at camp. The first stop is in the classroom, where the girls are quizzed about “sportswomanship” and what they think it means.

“Working together and communicating.”

“Accepting the fact that sometimes you’re going to lose.”

“Respecting your teammates and doing the right thing.”

Once they’ve worked out their definitions, they get the chance to act out what the term means, putting on quick skits where they help each other after suffering a fictional defeat on the sports field.

“Our goal at camp is to see the girls doing things they might not get to do on a regular basis,” said Heather, a first year counselor. “A lot of the campers are from underserved neighborhoods and they don’t get to just have fun and participate in this kind of environment.”

Once the inside work is done, the girls head outside to the field for aerobics and dance. Stations are set up for the campers to go through a short “circuit training” workout of push-ups, sit-ups, planks and jumping rope.

Yamerite, 12, Marlene, 12 and Tyra, 12 go through the paces, even trying some of the activities for the first time.

“It’s fun here. I like it,” said Tyra. “The dancing is the best because it’s just being silly.”

With that, the counselors bring out a stereo blasting music and start to teach the group dance all the campers will perform together later in the summer. Even the shyest girls in the group can’t help but get into it.

“Day to day, we see improvement here,” said Heather. “The campers really respond to what we’re talking about and what we’re doing here. We see their confidence levels going up.”

The final station of the morning is a sport, and on this day it’s floor hockey, run by the Chicago Wolves. As the girls walk onto the converted tennis court lined with nets and sticks, the looks of trepidation quickly dissipate as mascot Skates comes out to greet them and they start learning the basics of the sport.

“Sadly in Chicago most girls don’t get to grow up playing sports,” Skeen said. “There is very little access to sports and fitness programs at the elementary level especially and we know if you don’t grow up playing sports you’re not going to start playing in high school. There are very few places doing female-focused programs. We want girls to grow up learning the power of sports and athletes and realizing how fun it is.”

Girls in the Game partnered with Loyola University in Chicago to start tracking the difference the program’s activities were making in the campers’ overall health and well-being. Loyola has studied campers’ Body Mass Index (BMI) and found the program may significantly improve girls’ self control, body satisfaction and consumption of fruits and vegetables. The more time the girls spend in the program, they found, the more likely they were to have improved self-esteem and reduce time spent watching television.

“We see a lot of girls come back, which is why we made the decision to have year-long programs as well,” Skeen said. “A lot of the camp counselors who are teens started as campers when they were kids. It’s a chance to be with us year after year and it keeps them engaged in relevant programming.”

As the morning comes to a close, the girls happily fire off as many shots on net at Skates as they can before lining up for a group photo. The day has been another success, introducing girls to something they had never done before.

“I never really played hockey. I do track at school,” Kennedy said. “I liked it a lot.”

With the campers heading off to lunch, Skeen reflects on what the program ultimately hopes to accomplish for them and what path it could put them on.

“We want girls to grow up learning the power of sports and athletes and realizing how fun it is. Our programs give them a chance to really grow up and be involved in sport year after year. Are they all going to become WNBA super stars or Olympic athletes? Probably not. But if they grow up to be strong, confident women, then we’ve done our job.”