Girls Inc.’s mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold, and plans are in the works to create a new location in the Fort Smith area to serve even more girls.
Executive Director Amanda Daniels and other full- and part-time staff members work with about 130 girls after school every day at Girls Inc.’s 1415 Old Greenwood Road location. That number increases to 230 during the summer.
Daniels said strategic planning for the new location at Chaffee Crossing will take place over the next few months. Land for the new facility was donated.
The growing number of girls served through Girls Inc. has fueled the need for a second location, according to Daniels.
“We’ve just done the silent campaign right now; we haven’t officially kicked anything off,” Daniels said of the new Girls Inc. location. “We have to do that very soon. We just started a lengthy and in-depth strategic planning process … we think that’s going to go on about four months or so. And that will help us kind of get a ‘road map’ of how to get there and what we need to do.”
Planning for the new location includes getting the current facility in the best possible shape, Daniels said. Some of the planned improvements there include adding new HVAC units and LED lighting. Recent completed projects include installation of a new roof and new flooring in the main room area. In October, volunteers helped assemble new playground equipment at the facility.
Fort Smith’s Girls Inc. is the only affiliate in Arkansas, serving Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin and Logan counties in Arkansas and LeFlore and Sequoyah counties in Oklahoma. The group has been in the area for more than 80 years.
When girls arrive after school, they are required to scan in, and parents or guardians must check out once a child is picked up. Girls get a snack and then divide into various programs. After-school transportation is provided at each Fort Smith elementary school, although there is a waiting list.
Initiatives include physical activities as well as programs that promote positive body image and nutrition while discouraging violence, teen pregnancy and substance abuse. Education programs that promote STEM learning and things like money management also are offered. Girls also can get help with homework after school.
“We really try to focus on our programming being educational but still, at the same time, not feel like they’re still in school,” Daniels said. “Every single day is something different, except for Fridays; Fridays we try to leave open for more gym time or a movie or something like that, depending on the weather.”
A new feature for Girls Inc. is its outreach program. Outreach Coordinator Rebekah Van Lare works with classes at local schools to help get the message out about mental and physical health, nutrition and positive body images.
Van Lare will coordinate with a teacher who has an all-girls class, like a health or P.E. class, to set up discussions and programs with students. The program Van Lare uses is called Mind and Body.
“I’ll tell them about Girls Inc., show them what Girls Inc. is and get them a little bit more interested in maybe coming to Girls Inc. or just expose them to why Girls Inc. is a great organization,” Van Lare said.
The majority of girls who come to Girls Inc. are elementary age, so much of the outreach effort focuses on junior high age students. Programs can be tweaked based on what may be affecting girls at certain schools and may include discussions on things like peer pressure or how girls’ images are portrayed in the media.
“They are always super excited to have somebody else come in, somebody talking and doing something with them, especially having a class of all girls,” Van Lare said. “They like to get to have time to talk, and we’re normally talking about things that they have to deal with, so it’s an opportunity to talk about it, especially with somebody who’s not their teacher, to help them deal with things.”
Joyce Slack, Girls Inc. marketing director and program specialist, said the all-girls environment helps students open up more than they might otherwise.
“We come in as another trusted adult, and we form relationships with them,” she said. She added that some students will take them aside after class to talk about personal issues.
“That’s always a good response for us, them showing us that they’re comfortable talking about these things and being comfortable coming to us. That’s what we do and what we’re here for,” Slack added.
Recreational programs like basketball, volleyball and dance serve about 600 girls each year. Coaches are all volunteers. Currently, about 180 girls participate in Girls Inc. basketball, Daniels said.
Girls Inc. also partners with the Fort Smith Junior League and Gamma Phi Beta sorority at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for once-a-month programs and presentations. Girls Inc. recently partnered with the Western Arkansas Tennis Association and the Northside girls tennis team, who will put on tennis clinics for the girls.
“We try to do a lot of partnerships with different places to kind of mix it up with the girls so it’s different for them,” Daniels said.
Girls Inc. is served by a volunteer Board of Directors and employees six full-time staff members, plus part-time staff members. Additional part-time employees help with summer and camp programs.
Before girls arrive at the facility each day, staff spends time planning programs and fundraiser and working on grants. Each staff member has a job to do, Slack said, but everything really comes down to providing for the girls.
“I started part-time after school, and I fell in love with Girls Inc.,” Slack said. “You get attached to that. I think that’s part of why I like my job. I sit in my office and I do my work, but when the girls get here, I go out and still hang out with them and be part of the programming as well and do things with them.”
In 2016, Girls Inc. served more than 1,400 girls, with more than 80 percent living in families earning less than $35,000 and more than half coming from single-parent homes.
Girls Inc. is open almost every day Fort Smith Public Schools is out, generally, from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The facility is closed the day after Thanksgiving and day after Christmas and open all week during spring break.