We all remember middle school and the difficulties that go along with adolescence. Especially for girls, it can be a time of anxiety, low self-esteem and peer pressure. Woodbury’s Katie Inouye wants to help: She created Woodbury-based nonprofit GirlOnward, an organization that aims to help girls feel confident, and encourage them to tackle leadership roles as they move through life.
“I own Spark Training Solutions,” Inouye says. “It’s a business where we design corporate training programs and some online solutions for most of our customers. Because I write curriculum for a living, I thought I could create GirlOnward.”
Recalling some of her own middle school memories, Inouye wanted to leave a positive impact on girls going through a difficult time in their lives. “Our goal is to inspire and equip the next generation of women leaders,” she says.
Inouye, as a business owner, was already familiar with some of the process for becoming a nonprofit. It included filling out paperwork, writing bylaws and recruiting board members. In the end, her diligence paid off. GirlOnward is now a registered nonprofit, and can fundraise and write grants to grow its programming.
GirlOnward began with a summer leadership program in Cottage Grove. “We tried to make it as fun and engaging as possible,” Inouye says. They’ve since expanded their scope by including workshops for parents, and plan to launch an entrepreneurship program next year for girls. There are even community service projects offered throughout the year, which are announced through the website and on GirlOnward’s Facebook and Instagram. These projects are open to any local girls who want to join in.
“I was originally thinking of creating GirlOnward for high school students, but a local school board member encouraged me to focus on middle schoolers,” Inouye says. When she thought of her own middle school-aged daughters, she knew it was a good idea. Middle school is “a tough time, where we’re all trying to figure out who we are, and there aren’t as many opportunities for extracurriculars…if you aren’t an athlete,” she says.
GirlOnward programming focuses on what Inouye describes as social-emotional topics, like how to build trust and healthy relationships, and how to give back to the community.
Woodbury mom Jade Trinko found out about GirlOnward straight from Inouye and thought her middle school-aged daughter could benefit from the program. “My oldest daughter attended GirlOnward’s summer session last year,” Trinko says. “In this program, she had the opportunity to develop friendships with other girls her age, participate in volunteer opportunities and continue to foster her leadership skills, positive self-image…and learn to utilize her many talents.”
Her family has also participated in volunteer activities. Trinko says, “I [like] that this organization put a strong emphasis on giving back to the community.” She adds that the focus on leadership is also important to her. GirlOnward “sought to develop important skills such as leadership, team work, self-esteem…and personal growth in our girls, who are at a crucial age for needing opportunities like this.”
Since joining the program, Trinko has seen a change in her daughter for the better. “I think GirlOnward has been a safe place for her to grow personally and to learn more about the important role that women and girls have in our world. I think it has helped strengthen her self-confidence and pushed her to find ways to share her strengths with those around her.”
Angie Eichinger also got involved with GirlOnward its opening season. “I’ve got a daughter that’s middle school-aged,” Eichinger says. She says she was drawn to the idea that she wouldn’t have to be alone when it came to guiding her daughter not only through middle school but “to leadership…opportunities” as well.
“I really love that [GirlOnward keeps] going on for the school year too…so [my daughter] had opportunities to volunteer and get together with other kids her age.”
Inouye says that girls come from all over the metro to participate in GirlOnward’s programs, widening the variety of kids their own age participants can meet. In a time that otherwise can be isolating, providing friends can make a huge difference, Inouye says.
Eichinger says she also likes that her daughter has the opportunity to better herself through GirlOnward’s programs. Each girl is given a book to work on throughout the duration of the program which walks her through exercises to follow up with what she’s learning in the program. “I love that during the summertime [my daughter] would pick up her book and work on it,” Eichinger says. “I never once had to tell her to do it. She enjoyed it.”
Eichinger hopes that one day GirlOnward’s message will spread wider and bring ideas of empowerment and leadership to young girls to other neighborhoods. “There aren’t as many opportunities like this,” she says. “Well, not as many. Not nearly enough, especially with leadership.”
She’s glad that her daughter is getting a strong influence through Inouye’s programs and can’t wait to see what the lasting impacts of the organization end up being.
“My favorite thing to do was to go to a nursing home with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Eichinger says. “It was amazing to see these girls so timid and shy…[and] see the girls watch the adults to see how they interacted.” Eichinger says watching the girls go from being uncomfortable to engaging with the seniors was an incredible switch to see. She adds that she appreciated how fun GirlOnward made the whole activity, with incorporating a walk to the nursing home and ending the day with ice cream.
Inouye has big plans for the future of GirlOnward, hoping to expand bigger and stronger as the organization gains popularity. In 2020, she says GirlOnward will offer an “immersive” experience where girls can make their own company and learn to build, market and brand their creation.
In the meantime, volunteer opportunities and after-school sessions are available to those who want to improve the lives of their middle school girls. Inouye also says a parent workshop focused on anxiety will be available in the fall, to help equip moms and dads to discuss teen mental health in a productive way.
To stay up to date on all of GirlOnward’s opportunities, be sure to follow them on social media. Not only will you be the first to know when a volunteer activity is posted, you’ll be sure to get your daily dose of positivity and tips on where to find more female empowerment.