GirlSpring nonprofit empowers young women

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“It was like a flyer, and it said ‘community for girls, built by girls.’ I found that really interesting because I had never seen something so unique,” said Vem, who just graduated from Hoover High School. “It was just like a website and articles, and so free-flowing. And I really wanted to be a part of a community that just uplifts girls because I feel like, so many times on social media, and just generally, there seems to be a heavy male dominance. So having a place for girls seemed really nice at the time.”

The particular “time” she was talking about was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“After COVID hit, I was a junior in high school,” Vem said. “So I was already stressed with schoolwork and everything. But this seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t miss. So I decided to join, and a lot of my close friends did it as well. So we had a lot of fun, even though it was only virtual this year, so we didn’t have the in-person interaction. I still found it very, very fun and engaging.”

The nonprofit organization gave Vem the chance to meet and interact with other girls from other school systems, as well as opportunities to write — both a website and a collaborative book project — and generally to express herself.

The overall theme of the book project was “Empower a Girl and Change the World,” Vem said.

“So we’re showing how empowerment comes in many different forms. So mine came from STEM because I took computer science in high school, and I was one of the only girls in a class of 20 students. So that became something that I became really passionate about,” Vem said. “GirlSpring gave me a really good platform to voice my opinions on it as well.”

Thousands of girls across the metro area have made connections — in person and virtually — through GirlSpring since it was founded in 2010, Executive Director Kristen Greenwood said. The nonprofit organization is totally focused on empowering young women in ways they might not otherwise experience.

 “We know that girls don’t necessarily get all the skills they need to succeed in the classroom, not because they don’t have great teachers, but because they are focused on academics, which is very important,” Greenwood said. “But girls and women face challenges in life that they need to know how to navigate. Whether it is career or family, or both, there are things that girls need to know that aren’t taught in school.”

Greenwood talked to the Hoover Sun about how GirlSpring got started and why it’s so important:

Q: What does GirlSpring do and why? 

A: Our mission is to empower girls 9-18 with the tools they need to succeed in life: accurate information, inspiring events and positive female role models. 

Q: What does that look like in practice?

A: What this looks like in terms of programming is an online magazine and mobile app created and managed by a group of teen girls called the Springboarders, monthly talks led by female community leaders called Wonder Women that focus on topics ranging from how to succeed in careers (particularly male-dominated fields) to cybersecurity and financial literacy to nutrition and wellness, career and STEM fairs, film screenings, mother-daughter events and an annual summer camp.

Q: Give us an example.

A: Our largest ongoing program is the Springboarders teen program, which consists of 60 girls, 13-18, who are tasked with managing GirlSpring’s website, girlspring.com, which reaches 15,000 visitors per month, in Birmingham and beyond. The girls have varying roles of responsibility. At a minimum, each girl contributes some type of content to the site, such as an article on a topic relevant to their peers, a poem or artwork, or works with other team members to create a podcast or video interview with a female role model from the community.

There are also leadership roles such as chairs for the various committees (podcast, YouTube, etc.), and executive level (president, vice president and secretary). The girls work together to develop a monthly topic for their website submissions, create online events for their peers, such as trivia nights and peer-to-peer college prep advice panels, and periodically get together to have volunteer days. Girls are drawn from all different schools and backgrounds, so through this program they get exposure to girls from different walks of life, they learn how to work together as a team, develop leadership skills, and get to meet lots of inspiring women from our community that they might not otherwise meet.

Q: How did GirlSpring get started? 

A: GirlSpring was started by Jane Comer. She saw a lack of women in leadership positions and a need for more. She believed that by empowering girls, we build better communities, better businesses, better relationships and ultimately a better world. So, she started gathering input from women in Birmingham who felt similarly and founded GirlSpring as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2010. 

Q: How did you come to GirlSpring? 

A: I worked at the Birmingham Museum of Art for many years and knew who Jane was but didn’t really know her. One of my colleagues knew her well and knew about GirlSpring and introduced us. I fell in love with the mission immediately.

Q: How many girls does GirlSpring serve? 

A: It’s a hard question to answer, especially on grant applications. Through our in-person programs, where we actually see girls directly, about 1,000 per year from Birmingham and surrounding areas. Our biggest platform, however, is our website, which has, on average 15,000 visitors per month. Our website visitors … could be from Birmingham, or they could be from anywhere across the globe. 

Q: How do girls sign up? 

A: There are many ways to get involved. We have a number of public programs — monthly events called Wonder Women talks, films, an annual STEM Fair and Career Fair and a summer camp, but to “join” means to apply to our teen leadership program, the Springboarders. Springboarders must apply via an online application, be interviewed by a small peer group, commit to monthly meetings and commit to submitting something to our website each month (an article, artwork, poetry, podcast, video).

Q: Did the pandemic change what you do in any way? If so, how?

A: Yes, when schools shut down and girls had more time at home, we saw a dramatic increase in traffic to our website — 30% within weeks. We went from 8,000 average visitors to 13,000 in several weeks. That’s continued to grow since then. 

We had the largest Springboarder class since we started, and the pandemic actually was a huge booster for our growth. Girls were looking for resources online, and luckily they found us. The feedback we got from the girls we work with directly was that we also were a great source of structure when the rest of their world fell apart. Plus, reading articles written by peers going through the same thing made them feel they weren’t alone. Also, all of our in-person programs are now completely offered online. 

Q: What’s been the best thing about working with GirlSpring? 

A: Seeing all these young women from different backgrounds and schools come together to work towards a common goal. They all believe in empowering each other, in using their voices to help other girls. They are also all really nice girls — no cliques. It’s very inclusive. They want to see each other succeed. 

Q: If there were one thing you’d want people to know about GirlSpring, what would it be? 

A: I think there is a perception that it is a website where girls publish their writing, artwork and poetry. That is only one component of what it is. Although that is important, and valued, I think what the girls get out of it is so much more. It’s the behind the scenes camaraderie of working together to decide on the theme for the month; it’s the women they get to meet as guest speakers at their meetings and the women they interview for podcasts and video interviews, the in-person events like the Wonder Women talks and the STEM fair and career fair and the summer camp.

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