Empowering young women

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Best friends Elliot Roe (left) and Giuliana Underdown were among the dozens of young women participating in the first annual Girls Empowerment Day hosted by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department on March 19. Held at Dodge Community Center in the Hilltop, the day-long event offered art classes, dance classes, outdoor exploration and interaction with some of the city’s female leaders. Pictured here are the journals Roe and Underdown created during an art class. Asha Burney, the recreation leader at Brentnell, said the program encouraged journaling as it is an outlet for both creativity and “gathering your thoughts.”
Charlie Van Buren, a program coordinator at the Cordelion Performing Arts Academy, leads a group of girls in some light stretches before teaching a dance routine. Van Buren, a resident of Columbus, said dancing was a “great confidence builder” for her younger self as it helped make her comfortable in her body.
Jamyia Laury, 14, drops off a Seeds of Caring kindness kit for children at the CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence shelter. All of the girls made personalized cards for the kids seeking shelter there. Laury said her card encouraged them to keep their smiles because “they shine a light in this world.”
Westside resident Joelle Orozco said her “Love Yourself” hat was the perfect accessory for the event.

Suzanne Schwartz’s level of confidence has always been a loving point of faux contention within her immediate family.

“My parents would often joke to my siblings that if they were able to spread my confidence around to them, they probably would have raised eight completely normal children,” she said with a laugh.

Schwartz said she makes no apologies for having faith in herself, faith in her abilities, but even she admits to feeling crippling self-doubt from time to time.

“I am that person that truly is sure I’m going to throw a party and no one is going to show up,” she said.

While difficult to shift her mind away from the “alone-in-a-beautifully-adorned-room with great snacks on the table” visualization, she said it is important to push through those mental blocks because there might be something spectacular that later takes place within those walls.

Case in point, the massive celebration she helped organize on March 19 at the Dodge Community Center in the Hilltop.

The idea for this party began to take form years ago when Schwartz was a program lead at the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s Lazelle Woods Community Center.

“One of my assignments was teaching a Girls Empowerment class and I loved everything about it,” she said. “We would meet once a week and do fun activities, try new things without judgement, share our experiences, and just have a great time bonding with each other.”

When she transferred to the Far East Recreation Center to take the position of assistant manager, she helped run their program but eventually came to the conclusion that this was just not enough.

“I thought it would be great to do this across the whole department – to do this for all the girls of Columbus and all of our female staff.”

Inspired, she began to envision an all-day program where girls could try new activities in a safe and judgement-free space. She even knew the best time to have it would be during Women’s History Month in March.

In October of 2021, she composed a department-wide email: in it, she explained her idea for a Girls Empowerment Day filled with fun, confidence building programs and asked if any other recreation leaders would be interested in pitching in and helping out.

“Essentially, I was begging them to join my party,” Schwartz said. “It was nerve-wracking to hit that ‘send’ icon.”

Within 24 hours, she heard back from 80 percent of the email recipients – all of whom gave her a resounding ‘yes.’

Quickly, this first annual Girls Empowerment Day began to take shape. Local businesses committed funds, employees of local organizations committed to volunteer their time to host programs, and female city leaders signed up to speak about their experiences in governance (like Priscilla Tyson) and other realms.

With the ‘Future Me’ panel and a host of art, health and wellness, and outdoor exploration programming in place, then came the most difficult part of the planned festivities – gauging the interest of the community to see if anyone was willing to come.

Once again, Schwartz was certain no one was going to show up.

“I kept watching this little tracker we had to see how many people were signing up,” she said.

To her surprise and delight, many were.

Approximately 80 girls from the ages of 8-16 participated in the Girls Empowerment Day. Among those who attended the day-long programming was Jamyia Laury, 14, of Columbus.
Laury said she initially signed up as a favor to her younger sister, but quickly fell in love with the programming.

“It reminds me of this girls-only program we have after-school, but this one is more artsy.”

She said her favorite part was making cards and Seeds of Caring kindness kits for children living at the CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence shelter.

“The card I made said that their smile is so bright that it makes them shine,” she said. “I know they are going through a lot and finding a smile can be hard to come by. I wanted to remind them to keep their smiles because they shine a light in this world.”

Best friends Elliot Roe and Giuliana Underdown said they wanted to attend because it was an event that celebrated the female spirit.

“People, especially boys, don’t appreciate women and all that we do and can do,” said Roe, 10. “If there were no women, there would be no humanity.”

Underdown agreed.

“We can do all this nice, creative stuff and throw and catch a football, too,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

In addition to making cards and journals, they also learned a few lessons on faith in yourself through confidence building workshops and affirmations.

“I learned that you can be a friend to everyone, including yourself,” said Grace Towns, 9.
With the immediate success of the Girls Empowerment Day program, Schwartz said they hope to be able to work off of that momentum and establish girls-only programming offshoots throughout the year.

“We’ll see how it goes, see if anyone is interested in going,” she said.

She has the confidence that they will be.

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