BY SAM WATERSTONE | June 11, 2020
The first week of May was Girls Inc. Week, and even COVID-19 couldn’t stop the 82 Girls Inc. affiliate organizations across the United States and Canada from celebrating the power of girls and women to inspire change.
This year’s theme was “She Leads: Inspired & Engaged in Civic Life,” focusing on the leadership aspect of Girls Inc.’s youth development programming. Girls Inc. is also celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage to many (but not all) American women in 1920.
“Part of our advocacy work is teaching girls how to be engaged and inspired citizens, whether that’s through volunteering, advocating for a cause or a change that they’d like to see at their school or in their community,” said Kristen Weaver, Director of Communications at Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara (GIGSB). “It’s also teaching them about voting rights and exploring what it might look like to run for office one day.”
In honor of Girls Inc. Week, GIGSB helped coordinate virtual gatherings where teens from the Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and San Diego chapters of Girls Inc. were able to discuss ways to get more involved in their communities and create change in areas they are passionate about.
Despite the obvious challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, GIGSB has embraced the shift to virtual programming as a way to keep their teenage girls connected and engaged.
“When our schools closed and the order to social distance came in mid-March, we were a team of 83. By April 1, the staff was reduced to 27,” said Barbara Ben-Horin, CEO at GIGSB. “Keeping in mind that it’s all about the girls, family, and community, we are very proud of what our small but mighty team has been able to accomplish.”
In response to the pandemic, GIGSB switched to virtual programming to finish out their after-school program for the remainder of the school year, and began sending weekly emails to its families that include Girls Inc.’s signature “strong, smart, and bold” content. Additionally, GIGSB is working with local schools to decrease the digital divide, so more low-income students can access the Internet and continue learning using electronic devices.
GIGSB has developed a YouTube channel that is updated weekly with free content designed to engage local girls in fun, interactive ways. The videos focus on healthy living, academic enrichment with an emphasis on STEM and literacy, as well as life skills and resilience.
During this difficult time, GIGSB is stressing the importance of managing emotions appropriately and seeking mental health services when needed. The organization has remained in frequent communication with member families to make sure they have access to essential resources.
“All of our programming is high-touch, because our facilitators not only know the girls, they know their families,” Ben-Horin explained. “Many of our staff are bilingual, so they are able to call Spanish speaking or bilingual families and ask them, ‘How are you? What’s happening at home? What do you need?’ Sometimes we can help them access food or health services, but we’ll also ask them things such as ‘Have you filled out the census?’ or ‘Did you get your taxes done?’ and then we can help connect them to the resources to work through those processes.”
In addition to their youth programs and family outreach services, GIGSB has been collaborating with local partners to meet the changing needs of the community during the crisis. GIGSB loaned six of its vans to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County to help distribute food to those in need, and is allowing Showers of Blessing to use the parking lot at its Santa Barbara Center as a shower site, where unsheltered individuals can access free showers and other support services.
While GIGSB has been flexible and resilient in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the future holds additional challenges. The organization had to cancel their annual Scholarship Event, which raises money to support families that can’t afford GIGSB program fees. On top of this, GIGSB has lost out on months of program fees due to the closure of their centers, a revenue source that constitutes a major portion of their budget.
The organization recently decided to move forward with plans to offer a modified in-person summer program at its Goleta Valley Center, and is working through the logistics of reconfiguring classrooms for social distancing and implementing enhanced health and safety protocols for girls, parents, and staff.
As our county begins to open up and families start going back to work, there will be a need for the services that Girl Inc. provides, but it is likely that many families will not be able to afford the program fees. “We serve many very low-income families, and they will need to get back on their feet before they pay even a minimum amount for our programs,” shared Ben-Horin. “So, we need to be ready to cover that – that’s what we mean by scholarship. We need your help today to move forward.”
The Santa Barbara Foundation recently awarded GIGSB with a COVID-19 Response Grant, helping the organization maintain their operations as they continue providing important services to those in need. SBF stands with Girls Inc. in celebration of girls and women, and is proud to support organizations like GIGSB that inspire and empower young people to create positive change in our communities.