June 01, 2021

By Dayna Harpster – dayna@swspotlight.com

Spotlight News Magazine

Althea Irving leads one of the sessions for girls at the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County.

The girls in the Junior Women of Initiative program are young. So perhaps it was understandable that in early years of the program – which focuses on teaching middle school students life skills including preparing for a career someday – they were distracted by the designer bags and outfits of their mentors and the shopping day they had with these successful women from the community.

Program founder Tasheekia Harris decided a change was in order. “We decided we wanted to do more mentoring, building the girls up inwardly,” she said. “Instead of shopping for career attire when they don’t have a career, the focus is on leadership.” Now, the girls and the women who work with them wear matching polo shirts and dress casually. They don’t have a shopping day.

Four-month sessions are held in the spring and the fall. Until the pandemic, they met in person, at the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County, for sessions on taking charge of their choices, standing up for themselves, mastering job interviews and other topics. Lately, they’ve been meeting virtually.

Junior Women of Initiative at the Boys and Girls Club of Collier County learn life skills from older female role models.

They take a personality assessment, meant to help them begin thinking about what jobs may interest them. When people are able to gather safely and life is normal again, they’ll go back to following that up with a day shadowing someone with a career they are interested in, Harris said.

Harris began working for the Boys and Girls Club in 2001. In 2002, she said, some Boys and Girls Club board members who are affiliated with the Community Foundation of Collier County were interested in funding an empowerment program for girls. They chose middle school as the target age because they believed it is the most “at-risk” group.

“Before you can have a career you have to have the basics, a firm founda­tion,” said Althea Irving, who was on staff at the Boys and Girls Club as curriculum coordinator for several years beginning in 2012, until starting her own educational consulting business. She has continued working with Junior Women of Initiative. “The professional relationships they [the girls] have at this time are with their teachers, their guidance counselors and others,” she said. So they are taught to communicate appropriately and effectively with these adults in their lives.

Tasheekia Harris talks to a middle school girl in the Boys and Girls Club program.

Irving and other volunteers met with a group of about a dozen girls – a “highly selective group” Irving said, chosen by Harris – every other Monday, “giving them information on our experiences and how we’ve had to imple­ment the skills that we’re teaching them.”

Nicole Litchko, who is co-manager of career and technical education programs for Collier County Schools, began volunteering with the Junior Women of Initiative this year. In May, she conducted a career readiness session with the girls. Mentors held mock in­terviews that didn’t go well, with interview subjects chewing gum or slouching in their chairs, for instance, then had the girls identify what went wrong.

But first, there’s convincing them that starting to learn this kind of skill is impor­tant. “At the middle school age, there’s a lot of ‘Why? Why would I need this? They don’t see how it will be relevant to them. They’re all going to be famous, high profile,” Litchko said.

She explains to them that they already have accomplishments that can start a resume, and can add more lines by giving back to the community, as in volunteering.

Nealia Bryant, an occupational therapist for Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, started working with the program this year. She led a session on strategies for being a successful part of a team, setting goals, being organized and disciplined when facing a task. In middle school, that means preparing for the tests they have to take and communicating effectively with peers and adults.

“But it’s not just about what happens in schools,” Bryant said. “These skills will carry them through life.”

The Boys and Girls Club of Collier County is looking for guest speakers who can discuss the pros and cons of their chosen careers. Past volunteers have represented health care, finance, education, legal, retail, hospitality, law enforcement, fire protection and other fields. For more information, visit BGCCC.com/get-involved/volunteer, email volunteer@BGCCC.com or call 239-325-1700.