Rocket scientist or stay-at-home mom. Elementary schoolteacher or famous architect.
Be all you can be isn’t just for the US Army. It’s the ethos of Girls Inc. of Southwestern Connecticut, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The nonprofit organization helps girls develop into strong and bold women through a variety of programs.
Ultimately, Girls Inc. is about possibilities, says Donna Maglio, executive director of the southwestern Connecticut chapter.
A lot of times girls are under the misimpression that they have to make a decision about what they want to do, Ms. Maglio says. “If you choose to stay home and raise a family that can be seen as a lesser choice than if you’re a CEO. Equality is about the choices we make and not just the pay.”
In 1864, with the Civil War in its fourth year and Union troops wearing Waterbury Button Company buttons on their uniforms, seven society women in Waterbury decided it was high time to help the young women in their midst. And so on Jan. 15 the founders inked their names in what is now a sepia-toned notebook.
The organization, then known as “Girls Club of America,” became the first official girls club in the United States.
Today Girls Inc. is a nationwide program, with chapters in every state.
The southwestern Connecticut chapter reaches more than 1,600 children in the greater Waterbury area. It also offers programs in Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stamford, and Greenwich. Many of the organization’s members, aged 5 through 18, come from single parent and low-income households.
The founders envisioned a school where young women would learn how to keep a home together with some basic education in writing, reading, and mathematics. Primarily it was akin to a finishing school for young working women, Maglio says.
That approach lasted into the 1950s. But as the sexual revolution and women’s rights movements arrived, and the organization realized it needed to shift its focus – and quickly.
“We’re about having our girls feel confident with what success is – and it can be different things for different girls,” Maglio says.
The organization relies on private donations to maintain its programs, which include college and career planning, health and fitness classes, and self-esteem and life-skills sessions. Programs in science, math, and technological fields are also available.
Cooking and sewing classes are offered, too, because “what’s old is new again,” Maglio says.
On Fridays many of the girls come straight from school. They prepare dinner, set the table, and eat together.
“A lot of these girls don’t have this – eating together, asking how their day or week went – at home. So it’s really nice for them to get with 20, 25, other girls all working together, talking together,” Maglio says.
A teen leadership course is another popular program. It teaches accountability, responsibility, and community service. As a result, 95 percent of the participants graduate from high school and go on to college. Many of the young women are the first in their family to do so, Maglio says.
“We just want to give them enough exposure so they know they can make choices,” she says.