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After 22 years, Duluth YWCA closes GirlPower program

The nonprofit will host a farewell celebration Sunday for the program that offered academic and life skills education.

Youths in matching blue T-shirts, stand for a photo outside a college.
YWCA GirlPower participants pose for a photo after attending a Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College tour in July 2021 conducted by admissions officer Joshua Cleveland, back right. Front, from left: Jayda Sipila, Nevaeh Roper, Bailey Carr, Danika Mattison, Desiree Carlson and Apollonia Fanaselle; back: Hannah Siegle, Natalie Pittman, Alexis Pittman, Jarika Lewis, Samantha Wilson, Aina Ellsworth and Gia Leoni.
Contributed / Morgan Babineau
We are part of The Trust Project.

DULUTH — Morgan Babineau dropped the news on Day 1 of camp.

“They’re young adults,” she said. “We decided it’s better to treat them with the responsibility and maturity we know they had.”

A woman in a graduation cap and gown smiles with Lake Superior and the Aerial Lift Bridge behind her.
Morgan Babineau.
Contributed / Morgan Babineau

After 22 years and 3,000-plus girls and female-identifying youth served, the Duluth YWCA is closing GirlPower. The after-school and summer program offers mentoring, academic and life skills education and more through a racial, social justice lens.

GirlPower at one time served six locations throughout the Twin Ports, but COVID, staffing and fund shortages as well as dwindling participation are the cause of its closure, said Executive Director Beth Burt.

“The world has shifted and changed, and there are more after-school programs that incorporate some of the same activities,” she added.

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Three girls look at sea life in an aquarium.
Jayda Sipila, Desiree Carlson and Bailey Carr observe sea life in the Como Zoo aquarium in July 2021. This field trip was part of the Duluth YWCA's GirlPower programming, aimed at building leadership, enrichment and financial independence in area youth.
Contributed / Graciela Martinez

The YWCA is hosting a farewell celebration, open to all with connections to the program, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Lafayette Community Center, 3026 Minnesota Ave.

GirlPower often filled the gap in topics that weren’t covered in school and created a way for youth from different neighborhoods to build relationships. It's endeared to many in the community, said Babineau, GirlPower coordinator.

YWCA girlpower Miller Creek.jpeg
Esme Nordstrom and Jarika Lewis search for critters in Miller Creek during the YWCA's GirlPower summer camp in July.
Contributed / Morgan Babineau

Samantha Wilson, 14, was introduced to GirlPower in third grade. “I would always scan the room and see that I was different. I’m super tall, so everyone was shorter than me and smarter than me,” she said.

“Starting GirlPower, I realized that wasn’t something I should be scared about. Everyone’s different and everyone’s beautiful in their own shape. Being confident is what I need to do to be myself,” she said.

Giovanna Leoni.JPG
Giovanna Leoni
Contributed / Giovanna Leoni

Giovanna Leoni, 13, said the program is a safe space to be herself without judgment, and it has shown her how to build up herself and her peers.

If a youth says something negative about themselves during program hours, everyone redirects with a “try again,” Giovanna said. And, it’s a practice she and her friends have carried outside of school and camp.

It’s different than a group or a club, said Giovanna’s mother, Angie Leoni. “When you're part of GirlPower, you're part of a family," she said.

Leoni has been impressed that participants discuss sexism, racism and equity, how to treat people and community service. She recalled the youth conducting bake and craft sales for various community fundraisers.

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Leoni described her daughter as compassionate and considerate, “a little old soul,” and participating in GirlPower “has really helped to shape and inform even more of who she is.”

Alice Werle smiles for a photograph.
Alice Werle.
Contributed / Alice Werle

Girls’ voices often go unheard in larger groups, said Alice Werle, former program director, so an intention of the program is to amplify youth voices in safe, nurturing spaces.

During Werle’s five years with GirlPower, they offered homework help conducted by staff and Womentor volunteers; Girls, Inc.- based activities aimed to build self-esteem and leadership; and science and STEM programming.

A group of girls paddleboard.
Desiree Carlson, from left, Esme Nordstrom, Tala Nordstrom, Shanita Foster, Alex Lewis, Morgan Babineau, Jarika Lewis, Samantha Wilson, Averi Peloquin, Alayna Oliver and Lila Bollum paddle board at Barker's Island in July during a YWCA GirlPower field trip.
Contributed / Heather Holmes

And, youth executed community action projects, some resulting in discussions about LGBTQ-plus inclusion at local small businesses.

One year, the girls created and sold a magazine focused on body image and self-esteem. The proceeds went to The Emily Program, a Duluth eating disorder treatment center.

Esmé Nordstrom holds a snake.
Esme Nordstrom holds a snake in July during STEM week of GirlPower summer camp.
Contributed / Graciela Martinez

In the past two decades, GirlPower also partnered with the American Indian Community Housing Organization, Neighborhood Youth Services and the Steve O’Neil Apartments.

Because part of the YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism, GirlPower encouraged youth to tackle often avoided conversations. It can be really impactful to provide an opportunity to express what kids are seeing and experiencing, Werle said. This open communication also paves the way to brainstorm inclusion and equity solutions.

For Werle, it was a game changer to see youth learn how to use their voices, execute their ideas and make a difference.

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“I was a pretty shy kid. I think about how different I might be if I had somebody telling me, ‘Your voice does matter. You don’t have to be an adult to stand up for what you believe in,” she said.

Beth Burt.jpg
Beth Burt
Contributed / Beth Burt

Babineau said her time working with and coordinating the program has left a lasting impression.

“Not only have I made the girls strong, capable young women, I've learned from them so much about how to be a strong, capable woman myself,” she said. “It doesn't feel like a job; it feels like I'm serving this bigger purpose.”

With the program closing, Babineau and other staff members are referring youth to other area girls’ groups, including Men As Peacemakers.

Burt said she hopes the YWCA may eventually conduct a community assessment to see which gaps are needed and where the nonprofit can lend support within its mission.

GirlPower helped produce leaders in our community, she said. At the YWCA, “we’ll continue to ensure women and girls have a voice at the table.”

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MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
“I've dressed up for Halloween. I've hiked the Tettegouche," Cindy Stratioti said. "I’ve done a wedding on the top of Enger Tower, doing my best to hold onto the marriage license so it doesn’t go flying."

Related Topics: DULUTHNONPROFITS
Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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