Every day after school, the next generation of Johnson County’s leaders are given the tools they will need to be successful.
Close to 30 girls meet at Girls Inc. of Johnson County to learn how to budget, save and take informed risks with their money. Some of the girls work on strategies to avoid drug and alcohol abuse programs later in life. Others work on community service projects that they lead themselves.
The activities at Girls Inc. look a lot different from when the local organization was founded in 1940. But as it enters its 75th year, the organization’s leaders hope to build on the success of a core mission that has remained the same.
Programs have changed to prepare young women to achieve academic success, lead healthy lives and incubate an interest in science, technology and math. But the group’s mission has not.
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“We’re teaching girls some lifelong skills that are going to be applicable for the rest of their lives,” said Sonya Ware-Meguiar, CEO of Girls Inc. of Johnson County. “We’re helping these ladies to go out and really contribute to society.”
Girls today have their choice of a carefully created slate of activities tailored to helping them reach their potential.
In Operation SMART, girls learn the basics of math, engineering and technology to foster interest in those fields. Project Bold is a chance to teach young women how to cope with and avoid violence.
The Sisterhood program gathers girls ages 11 and older to learn about responsibility, career-building skills, self-esteem and positive body image. Participants have started their own businesses, refurbishing used goods into unique decor items as well as creating their own jewelry.
“It’s very structured and more scientific,” Ware-Meguiar said. “We try to be relevant today to meet the needs of girls in today’s society. The needs of girls, and the issues they’re facing, have evolved over time.”
That evolution is visible simply by looking at Girls Inc.’s program offerings since 1940.
When Girls Inc. started, it was called the Girls Club. Predating the founding of the national Girls Club of America organization, it became a hub for young women to learn life skills.
They lived blocks away from the club’s location at Madison and Home streets in Franklin, walking to it after school or in the morning during the summer.
“Looking through the records, it seemed like every house on a street had a girl who came here,” said Pat Stevens, a longtime volunteer with Girls Inc.
Girls had doll contests and pet competitions. They learned folk dancing and etiquette, such as how to address adults and set a proper table. Cooking and sewing were mainstays of the program, since those were the skills that women were expected to have at the time.
“It always tried to be relevant for the girls at the time,” Stevens said. “We try to match the times.”
Bonnie Pottschmidt started going to Girls Inc. in the mid-1940s. She lived around the block from the organization headquarters and would roller-skate over to play with her friends.
The curriculum was less structured at that time. Often, the girls could decide what they wanted to play that day, though planned cooking, sewing and crafting classes were available. The volunteers often were the girls’ mothers, grandmothers, aunts and big sisters.
“You could play anywhere in the house or out back,” she said. “I remember it being little old ladies in floral dresses who watched us.”
One of the most popular features were a set of pingpong tables on the second floor.
“I can still remember the ‘ka-thump, ka-thump’ of the pingpong balls,” Pottschmidt said.
For girls in high school, a highlight was the occasional coed dances held at the house. Young men and women could dance in the main rooms to popular music.
Chaperones would open the windows and doors, allowing couples to dance on the Victorian porch.
“That was so romantic, to be able to dance out there. There were no lights out there,” Pottschmidt said.
As more women entered the workforce, Girls Inc. adapted to bring in trained volunteers and paid staff to help run its programs.
Girls Inc. now offers a research-based curriculum designed specifically for girls. The programs are taught by trained instructors who are certified by the national organization.
That’s what motivated Franklin resident Tara Mirchandani to sign up her daughters for Girls Inc. The program taught financial literacy and how to avoid peer pressure and emphasized science, math and self-esteem.
“It was very practical-based. They really empower the girls to stand up for themselves and think positively for themselves,” Mirchandani said. “And they teach the girls real-life, everyday skills that other places aren’t teaching anymore.”
Her oldest daughter, Danah Clark, was involved with the group for 12 years, while her youngest daughter, Danielle Clark, took part for eight years. The lessons they learned during their time at Girls Inc. and the connections they made have been invaluable, Mirchandani said.
“It was a very positive environment,” she said. “They worked on making friends, and they still have those friends. They’ve become lifelong friends at this point.”
Pottschmidt worked part time at Girls Inc. for 15 years, working with the girls as the organization’s librarian. She loved to expose the young women to known authors. In the fall, she’d read them Indiana’s famous poet James Whitcomb Riley.
She was known as the “Bug Lady” because she’d collect praying mantises, cicadas and butterflies and other insects from her garden to show the girls.
“If you can tell them something that is a little bit out of the ordinary, they’ll remember that,” Pottschmidt said.
The organization also was opened up to a more diverse group of girls. While originally it was almost entirely Franklin children, it has expanded to bring in girls from across Johnson County.
Ware-Meguiar offers a monthly program to women at the Atterbury Job Corps Center to teach them positive body image and job skills. She also works with groups such as Esperanza en Jesucristo to pass on the same kinds of lessons.
“We really want to include all girls in our programs,” Ware-Meguiar said.
As Girls Inc. supporters prepare for its 75th anniversary, plans are in place to link the past with the present and future of the group.
A reunion is being planned for September, where Girls Inc. alumnae from multiple generations can meet together to celebrate the organization.
Volunteers are combing through records and trying to reach all of the women who passed through the program as girls. The hope is to create a kind of yearbook showing where Girls Inc. alumnae have gone in their lives and how it influenced their lives.
The goal is to reconnect with hundreds of women who have taken part in Girls Inc. and could serve as a wealth of knowledge for today’s participants.
“We’re always looking for smart, strong and bold women, who can come back and teach a class, serve as mentors or be homework helpers,” Ware-Meguiar said.
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What: Girls Inc. of Johnson County, a community organization offering safe, enriching programs for young women throughout the county
Where: 200 E. Madison St., Franklin
When: 2:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday
Who: Open to all girls ages 5 to 18
- Economic Literacy: Teaching how to budget, save and take informed financial risks
- Discovery Leadership: Helps build leadership skills by partnering girls and women in community action projects
- Friendly PEERsuasion: A substance abuse prevention program for girls ages 11 to 14
- Operation SMART: Stimulates girls’ interests in science, technology, engineering and math
- Sporting Chance: Provides quality sports involvement and systemic skill-building for girls of all ages
- Project Bold: A comprehensive, research-based program to help girls avoid, address and cope with violence
- Media Literacy: Encourages girls to think critically about media images and messages
- Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy: Develops skills, insights, values, peer support and information to prevent adolescent pregnancy
Cost: $140 per semester, $35 registration fee, $20 transportation fee
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In celebration of Girls Inc. of Johnson County’s 75th anniversary, the organization is reaching out to everyone who has participated in the program.
Plans for a September reunion and yearbook are in the works, but organizers want to hear from as many Girls Inc. alumnae as possible.
Contact Sonya Ware-Meguiar, CEO of Girls Inc. of Johnson County, to connect. She can be reached at 736-5344 or [email protected].