Girls Inc. Gives Women a Voice in their Own Empowerment

Sep 20, 2018

When Patricia Fernandez-Torres was in high school, her dad made it clear she was to stay home after graduation and help out the family. Fernandez-Torres, however, had different plans. When she graduated from Alisal High School in Salinas, she went off to college without her father’s blessing. Although he never visited her while she was pursuing her degree, her father made an exception for her graduation ceremony. It was there, Fernandez-Torres recalls, that he had a change of heart. “He came to my graduation and then he understood that a woman with a degree is a woman with power,” she says.

This personal experience motivated Fernandez-Torres to help other girls identify and pursue their dreams. In 2000, she found a volunteer mentorship opportunity with a girls empowerment program at her former high school, called the ECHO Program (Education, Careers, Health, and Opportunities). It fulfilled a desire to give back to the community and inspire others to follow in her footsteps. ECHO’s success with girls age 15-17 grew and the program became integrated into the work of the local affiliate of the national nonprofit Girls Inc. of the Central Coast. In 2012, Patricia became the Executive Director, fulfilling her dream to lead an organization whose mission is to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold™ and to respect themselves and the world around them.

Girls Inc. of the Central Coast Executive Director Patricia Fernandez-Torres

Cultivating friendships across cliques

Girls Inc. of the Central Coast serves over 1700 girls every year in the counties of Monterey, San Benito, and, as of 2015, Santa Cruz. Through seven different programs, girls are taught life skills that aren’t typically covered in the classroom. Covering topics ranging from peer pressure and reproductive health to college requirements and career planning, girls learn to tap into their personal power, make smart lifestyle choices, and build the confidence and skills necessary to achieve their goals. The programs are open to any girl, age 8-18, who wants to take part. “We don’t target a specific group. We’re open to all girls. I want those who are in gangs and those who have straight A’s to come together so they can see they’re the same,” explains Fernandez-Torres.

Expanding services to Santa Cruz City Schools

Starting this school year, Girls Inc. of the Central Coast is offering its programs at select Santa Cruz middle schools for the first time. A $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation will help support this new programming from July, 2018 through June, 2019. The goal is to serve 60-90 girls in the 2018-19 school year and expand into the city’s high schools the following academic year. The main challenge, says Fernandez-Torres, is educating new schools and parents about who they are and what they do. She’s confident, however, that once their first few cohorts of girls go through the programs, the enthusiasm of the graduates will quickly win over any schools that are hesitant to jump on board.

Empowering Girls to Empower their Peers

Girls Inc. of the Central Coast relies heavily on enthusiastic word-of-mouth referrals from current program participants or alumni. And this has proven to be their most effective marketing strategy because nearly all the girls who take part in their programs become passionate advocates. In fact, past graduates of the ECHO program enjoyed it so much they asked to go through it a second time. Instead, Girls Inc. of the Central Coast designed a Youth Leaders program to leverage the girls’ enthusiasm and give them a voice in their own empowerment.

“What’s better than training the youth?” asks Fernandez-Torres. “Now we have high school girls who are being leaders in their own community.” These young leaders have the opportunity to receive training, become Girls Inc. staff members and earn wages for their contributions to the program. There are currently 35 youth leaders employed across the Central Coast, from high school girls to alumni who have returned to inspire other girls in their community. This program is unique to the Central Coast but other chapters across the U.S. are taking note. Giving young girls the opportunity to step up and inspire their peers to make healthy choices and reach for their goals has proven incredibly powerful. Fernandez-Torres believes they’re having an even greater impact by allowing the girls to teach their peers.

“Once the girls get involved with the ECHO program, they get involved with more activities at school,” she says. “And 97 percent of our [alumni] youth leaders are attending UC’s or CSU’s.” Fernandez-Torres also says that offering peer mentoring gives the girls someone to talk to at school when the adults Girls Inc. staff aren’t on duty. There are also issues that girls won’t openly share with an adult, but they’re willing to confide in a peer. The Youth Leader program has in this way established a more reliable support system that ensures the girls always have someone to turn to.

Local Girls Inc's leadership program participants

Leading by example

While the mission of Girls Inc. is technically to empower girls, Fernandez-Torres also believes in empowering the women of all ages who work for the organization. She worked with her board to research nonprofits across the country with similar models. That work prompted a drive to invest in the organization’s talented workforce and led to the entire staff receiving a pay raise commensurate with their position and performance. Retaining skilled and experienced staff and youth leaders from the community has been a key factor in the organization’s successful pursuit of its mission. “I don’t want to keep training staff [every 2 years] because they go somewhere else,” she explains. “They’re passionate about what they do so let’s pay them, let’s not take them for granted. We want these women to be professionals so we need to pay them professional salaries, even though we’re a nonprofit.”

It’s this forward-thinking perspective that has kept Girls Inc. of the Central Coast relevant over nearly two decades of education and empowerment in local elementary, middle, and high schools. As the organization expands into Santa Cruz, they will take this wealth of experience with them, but in the end, it’s winning the support and trust of key community members and, of course, the girls they serve, that ensures their success. Fernandez-Torres believes they will quickly garner this support, but her team is still looking for passionate volunteer mentors, board members, and, of course, additional funding, as they take on new territory. Hopefully, by the end of this school year, the middle school girls will be doing their part to drum up support, sharing their experiences with friends and siblings and recruiting the next year’s group of girls ready to take on the world.

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Written by

Kevin Heuer