One by one, Kristie Piacine prompted the 11 girls watching her and one another on a computer screen: What are you grateful for? Will you name a stretch or yoga pose?
One by one, the girls answered: family, health, everything, taco shells; tree pose, warrior pose, side stretches. Some piped right up, some hesitated, some giggled as they talked. Another session of Great Girls Today was underway.
Piacine – known as Miss Kristie to the girls – is a manager of Youth Empowerment Programs at YWCA Tri-County Area. YW’s youth programs for girls combine group mentoring in social/emotional learning with fitness and nutrition practice, career exploration, and leadership development to nurture the “whole girl”. Youth empowerment leaders engage girls in grades 4-12 in a variety of activities designed to help them build healthy habits, resist risky behaviors, and contribute to their communities. Girls meet in school or after school, varying with age group.
Usually meeting in the evenings at YW’s offices on King Street, the groups are now meeting via teleconferencing, joining either on computers or by phone. When YWCA Tri-County Area closed on March 13 because of COVID-19, the youth empowerment staff went right to work, designing program activities that could be done virtually.
The meetings start off with an icebreaker activity, and a physical fitness activity. While the program progresses, the girls use the chat feature of the meeting platform to say hello to one another. Family members and pets wander in and out of the camera view.
To keep the girls engaged between activities, staff will place polls on the screen for them to answer. A poll will ask them questions about the day’s topic. They’re asked what they miss about school, how they’re doing at home, what they’re doing to relieve stress, what they liked or didn’t like about the day’s program. Staff uses the results to lead into a discussion or activity, or to design future programming.
Staff also uses direct feedback from the girls to design future programming; poll results give staff a glimpse into what’s going on in the girls’ lives while they’re at home. The virtual programs have given youth empowerment staff new insight into the girls’ lives beyond what they see at school or at YW.
“(The virtual meetings) give us a view of the whole girl,” said Kelly Grosser, director of Youth Empowerment Programs. “Not just as school, but now we’re seeing them at home, too.”
The 11 girls in Great Girls Today are in grades 4-6; their focus is on healthy habits and healthy relationships. They also meet monthly with volunteers in the community, who expose the girls to various careers.
In observance of Earth Day, and for April’s career exploration program, the girls met recently with Sarah Crothers, education director for Schuylkill River Greenways. The Schuylkill River is the main source of drinking water throughout the area, Crothers told the girls; she shared a video that helped the girls understand the role rivers and streams play in their lives. Crothers also talked about water pollution, using a large display board to demonstrate to the girls how pollutants and litter are washed by rain into river.
Crothers and Piacine led discussions about water use and waste, closing the Earth Day discussion by asking the girls to be mindful of their water use, to avoid using disposable water bottles whenever possible, and to be leaders among their family and friends by setting examples of stewardship of the planet.
Youth empowerment staff – Kelly Grosser, Kelly Earnshaw, Kristie Piacine, and Dionna Webster – are considering how to continue to use the virtual connections,e ven after traditional programming resumes, to interact with girls who cannot attend the in-person groups . Five new girls have joined Great Girls Today since the program moved online, inspired by their friends or sisters to join. Grosser, director of the Youth Empowerment Programs, said the new participants are girls who have scheduling conflicts that prevents them from attending in person.
Virtual programs are offered at the same times as the in-person programs. All girls are welcome to join the appropriate age group:
- Girls In Charge/Pottstown Middle School (grades 6-8): 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Mondays
- Girls In Charge/Pottsgrove Middle School (grades 6-8): 2:45 – 3:45 p.m. Tuesdays
- Great Girls Today/all schools: 6-7 p.m. Wednesdays
- Girls Take the Lead/Owen J. Roberts High School (grades 9-12): 1-2 p.m. Thursdays
- Girls In Charge/Owen J. Roberts Middle School (grades 6-8): 2:30-3:30 p.m. Thursdays