Bouncing Off the Walls
“She had just turned 12, a routine checkup for headaches she had been treated for since the age of 8… During the exam, she had a couple seizures – out of the blue… Never had them before, at least what we knew. After extensive testing, EEG, etc. she was diagnosed with Epilepsy. A life changer.
All of the freedom of finally being almost old enough to do things with friends without being watched all the time, was gone… She could not be left alone, not even for a short time. Seizures come and go, without warning… [having controlled the seizures], she has embraced the times she gets to spend at camps, meeting new people, making new friends, learning new skills, allowing her to forget for some time about medications, nausea, anxiety, fatigue, and just being a teenage girl struggling with the normal teenage stuff.”
These are the words of the mother of one of our summer campers and as you will see, informal Women Can Do participant, following an interview with her daughter, Britney. They agreed to let us share this piece of her story as it provides a valuable context for understanding the role that our programs can have in fostering independence during periods of transition in young women’s lives.
Britney first heard about Vermont Works for Women through the annual STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) conference, Women Can Do, which VWW hosts every year in Randolph Center. Her mother runs a workshop in weatherization and insulation and her eight-year-old daughter came along to see the conference in action, even getting to try out a chop saw that she describes as probably being bigger than she was at the time.
Britney is now thirteen and recently moved from Randolph, where she was born and grew up, to Barnard. She has a wide variety of interests and describes herself as “bouncing off the walls.” For several years she has gone to theater camp at the Barre Opera House, in addition to Conservation Camp, and both Dirt Divas and Rosie’s Girls. She is also a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, specializing in a particular style called poomsae for which she has won awards competing at a national conference.
Britney is creative in all areas of her life, including hairstyling and makeup which she thinks of as forms of personal expression. She told me about being nervous on her first day of Rosie’s Girls, because she was concerned about how “empowerment” would be defined. She explained that she had attended other camps for girls where the definition of empowerment felt restrictive and narrow, telling girls, “you shouldn’t want to look good” as though the only way to feel good about oneself is to ignore appearance.
On the topic of appearance, the conversation immediately went to the covered mirrors in the camp bathrooms. This works to create an environment of non-judgment which is critical to supporting positive relationships, body image, self-awareness, and creativity among groups of teenaged girls.
It is important not just as it influences the ways that these young women interact but also in how they view and treat themselves. What it does for Britney in particular, beyond removing a distraction (she says she has begun to notice how people go into “the mirror trance” when in the bathroom and how much time it saves to not be able to see oneself), is to put everyone on equal ground. She related this to another interest of hers, running. She just completed the half-marathon portion of the Burlington City Marathon and when I asked about the effect of covering the mirrors, she related it to the marathon. She said,
running a half marathon, [everyone] is running a marathon, a half-marathon, so everyone’s sweaty and gross.” She says,“I guess I’m less self-conscious when other people are in the same boat.”
However, Britney’s experience at camp is not just about building social and emotional skills. She tells me that she’s excited to be going back for a second year to build on many of the things she learned last summer. The first year, everyone built a toolbox; this year, the girls design and build whatever they want, a box, shelves, bench etc. and she specifically appreciates this freedom, telling me “I just like making my own thing. That’s why I don’t take art class, cause they say ‘you have to draw this.’”
She went on to tell me, “I like to be creating my own thing, when I was younger I would only make homemade gifts… I’d go downstairs in the recycling bin and get cardboard boxes and make like little houses and scenes and stuff. I made this boat out of Popsicle sticks and duct tape. It was really pretty cool.”
At Rosie’s Girls, Britney feels like this creativity is encouraged and she appreciates the hands-on skills that she is developing, in carpentry and welding in particular but also in the design, planning, measuring and especially math, which has never been her strong point, and the space she is given to make her own creations. This creativity and confidence continues even after camp has finished. She told me how great it was, in her tech. ed. class last year, that when it came to using tools and measuring and cutting, she was able to say “oh I got this!”
During this time in a young woman’s life, as she is making the transition from childhood to adulthood, middle school to high school, we give them the tools and skills to navigate those changes. Rosie’s Girls is tasked with helping young women explore, create and develop their own interests, fostering a sense of excitement and empowerment in whatever they do. I asked Britney towards the end of our interview what she thinks she might want to do someday. She told me, “I know I’m definitely not going to be in an office; I’m going to be doing something… maybe building… but I like the medical field too, like learning how to deal with other people, be patient.” We hope, as she moves through her life and all the changes that will bring, that she will hold onto her experiences which have encouraged creativity, exploration, patience, and broad definitions of empowerment.