By Caroline Cioffi, LiveGirl High School Mentor
In a world where women account for only 19% of Congress and 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs, LiveGirl founder Sheri West believes it is more important than ever to empower the next generation of female leaders. Mrs. West kicked off the week with a reflection on many of the women who supported her throughout her life and she hopes Camp LiveGirl provided the same inspiration to each of the 140 campers.
After brief introductions on Monday morning, campers were introduced to Nicole Heriot-Mikula, the co-owner of a company called bring the Hoopla. Nicole encouraged each girl to find something she is truly passionate about and pursue that dream, even if it is something as seemingly crazy as starting a hula hooping company. After learning Nicole’s story, the girls were encouraged to try hula hooping for themselves—a great way to bond with other campers while learning a new skill!
Melissa Stewart, a former Radio City Rockette, shared her journey to becoming a professional dancer. From a young age, Melissa knew that dancing was her passion and was determined to pursue her dream of dancing for a living. Fast forward 15 years and Melissa arrived in New York City alone, but determined nevertheless to be successful. Only by advocating for herself was Melissa able to secure a spot as one of the most prestigious dancers in the country: a Radio City Rockette. After sharing her inspirational story, Melissa taught the campers a dance from the Rockettes’ show, complete with their signature high kicks.
After a long day of hula hooping and dancing, the campers settled down to hear from New York Times best selling author Lauren Oliver. Lauren is best known for her books Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy. Most recently, Lauren founded her own production company, Glasstown Entertainment, which is made up entirely of women. Lauren’s presentation focused on teaching campers to fail better, a tribute to her mantra that failure is just another word for practice. Lauren showed the girls a list of over 30 books she had written that were never published. Yet, she explained that she did not consider these books to be “failures”; rather, she viewed them as an opportunity to practice writing and improve upon her skills as a writer. Lauren went on to share the stories of extremely successful people who faced opposition and failed many times (5000 in the case of James Dyson, creator of the Dyson air blade!) before ultimately reaching success. Lauren challenged each girl to consider what would have happened if any one of these people had accepted defeat after failing.
To kick off the second day of camp, Lena Pacheco, the education manager at the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, shared a presentation entitled ‘Pushing Past No.’ Lena shared the stories of women from the hall of fame who overcame considerable obstacles and rejection in order to be successful. Emeline Roberts Jones, one of the women highlighted in Lena’s presentation, became interested in dentistry and became determined to pursue a career as a dentist. During her time, however, women were not able to attend schools where they could learn how to perform dental surgery. Emeline, however, was not willing to let that stop her. She begged her husband, a dentist, to teach her about dental surgery. Despite not believing she would be successful due to her “frail fingers”, he taught her the skills she needed to be a dentist. When he died, Jones continued his dental practice and became the first woman to practice dentistry in the United States. Through the stories of Emeline and many other influential women, Lena taught the campers that they should never be willing to take ‘no’ for an answer.
“Hey Wondergirls! Who’s ready to show their strength,” Meaghan Davis, founder of the BRAVE Institute, shouted. “I am!” responded the collective voice of the LiveGirl campers. Tuesday marked the first day of Meaghan’s Brave Leaders course. Meaghan began the course by challenging each girl to consider the question ‘Who are you?’ and record their answers on a green sheet of paper. Meaghan went on to ask each girl to create their own definitions of words like ‘values’ and ‘identity’ that are essential to developing a better understanding of her original question. After discussing and sharing definitions, Meaghan challenged each camper to go back to her green sheet should she need a reminder of who she is and what is most important to her. “Make decisions that represent what you wrote down well,” Meaghan told the girls.
To finish the day, campers who chose to participate in multi-sports participated in basketball drills coached by Craig Davis and played soccer scrimmages led by Rich Hickson. Meanwhile, campers who chose musical theatre began rehearsing “Kiss Me Kate” with members of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
On Wednesday morning, LiveGirl hosted the second most decorated Paralympic athlete and author of ‘Unsinkable,’ Jessica Long. Jessica was adopted at the age of 13 months from Bratsk, Siberia. Due to a condition called fibular hemimelia, which Jessica was born with, her lower legs were amputated upon her arrival to the United States. Despite being a double amputee, Jessica was involved in many sports from a young age before finding a passion for swimming. In 2004, at the age of 12, Jessica debuted at the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens, Greece and came home with three gold medals. Today, Jessica holds a total of 23 Paralympic medals. Following her success, in 2014, Jessica was able to return to Siberia to meet her birth parents. Rather than feeling anger towards them, Jessica made a choice to forgive her parents for giving her up. Most recently, in June of 2018, Jessica co-wrote her book ‘Unsinkable,’ a memoir that describes her story of determination and overcoming obstacles. She encouraged the campers to see her story as an example of someone who has been able to overcome challenges with the help of positivity and determination.
Again, Meaghan greeted the girls with “Hey Wondergirls!” before launching into another day of self-exploration. Picking up where they left off, the girls were asked to record aspects of their identity such as race, ethnicity, name, religion, and gender on colored sheets of paper. One at a time, the girls “gave up” one card so that each girl was left with a final card that was most important to them. Meaghan asked the girls to consider what they would feel like if someone disrespected their “final card”. Through discussion, the girls explored acceptance of other people’s differences and values. To finish the day, Meaghan asked each girl to list 10 traits that are important for a successful leader. The girls were then able to share their ideas and consider ways that they could become more successful leaders.
Again, the campers divided into sports and musical theatre. While the sports teams learned volleyball from New Canaan boys volleyball coach Amy Warren, the musical theatre teams continued rehearsing “Kiss Me Kate” with members of the Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
By Thursday, the LiveGirl campers were expecting to sit and listen to another presenter as they had done previous days. Pilin Anice, an Afro Flow Yoga instructor and Athleta model, had other ideas. After a brief explanation of how she became involved with Afro Flow Yoga, Pilin invited all of the girls to come on stage with her and try it for themselves. Pilin played traditional African drum beats, which she explained are used in rituals that are designed to bring African communities together. After teaching the girls a basic dance that introduced them to Afro Flow Yoga, Pilin encouraged the girls to come up with their own moves. Pilin asked each girl to come up with the word of something she “needed”, such as love, energy, and kindness. With each word, every girl performed a dance move that represented the necessity they had chosen. In this way, Pilin taught the campers that Afro Flow Yoga can serve as a way to not only connect a community, but also to express oneself.
Thursday being the last day of Meaghan’s leadership course, she helped the girls write long-term plans for bettering their leadership skills. The girls began by writing a series of “I am willing” statements. Meaghan challenged the girls to think of things they were actually willing to do in order to achieve the goal of becoming the successful leaders they discussed in previous sessions. Next, the girls brainstormed specific strategies they could use to achieve the goals they had come up with. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Meaghan asked each girl to create a list of ways they could be held accountable for their progress. Meaghan suggested posting sticky-notes as reminders and telling a friend or family member who would help to hold them accountable for accomplishing their decided goal. Regardless of the strategy, these accountability devices will help each girl to ensure that she continues to practice and become a more successful leader even once camp is over.
For the last time, the girls split between the sports and musical theatre groups. The sports groups learned yoga and self defense from Casey McBridge and Lukasz, instructors at Oxygen fitness in New Canaan. After one last rehearsal, the musical theatre groups performed scenes from “Kiss Me Kate” in front of the whole camp.
On Friday, the final day of camp, Sarah Edwards, Queen of Diamonds race car driver, shared her story of pursuing the nontraditional career path of professional drag racing. Sarah was first inspired to become a racecar driver when her parents took her to her first drag race. From that day, she became determined to acquire her drag racing license and become a professional driver. It was always a personal goal of Sarah’s to be the driver of the Queen of Diamonds; in 2017, Sarah became the driver of the 300 mile per hour jet dragster known as the Queen of Diamonds. Sarah reflected on the support she has gotten from the drag racing community. She recalls that the community was nothing but supportive towards her from the day she started racing. She encouraged the campers to find a community of people who share their passion and who can support them like the drag racing community supported her.
Following Sarah’s speech, the campers were given the opportunity to choose from a variety of electives. Elective choices included a poetry course taught by spoken word artist Latasha Blackwell, a social media seminar led by representatives from the University of Connecticut, a coding course, and a screening of the movie Wonder Woman, in accordance with the week’s theme of wonder girls.
To finish the week, a few brave campers performed in a talent show led by talented singer and former LiveGirl fellow, Victoria Iparraguirre. Victoria concluded the show with her own moving performance and blew the campers away with her talent!
Finally, each group met to exchange contact information, write positive affirmations in each other’s notebooks, and reflect on the powerful week they spent together. The campers left on the last day, sad to leave their newly-made friends, but feeling empowered and excited to continue with LiveGirl throughout the school year! Founder Sheri West concluded camp, by saying, “This is only the beginning. We are forever bonded together as a community of girls and women ready to change the world."