SWSG adapts mission to guide young girls during the COVID-19 pandemic

Written By Amanda Andrews

This semester, many young children in the Pittsburgh area and nationwide are having to learn from their teachers, keep up with friendships and generally understand the world in an entirely new kind of classroom: their bedroom.

The coronavirus has altered life significantly for everyone, but studies have shown it has had a marked impact on young children, especially young girls who live in marginalized communities. The ultimate goal of Strong Women Strong Girls (SWSG), a non-profit organization, is to help mentor these girls through one of the most challenging times in recent history—all through a screen for the very first time instead of face-to-face contact.

Generally, the organization’s mission is one of female empowerment. The idea is for female college students to create relationships and mentor young girls in the Pittsburgh area through after-school programs. Those college students are also mentored by “Strong Leaders,” women who are professionals in a variety of fields.

SWSG has multiple sorority chapters across Boston and Pittsburgh, including at Point Park. According to SWSG Operations Director Kimmi Baston, there are around 300 total college mentors and 130 Strong Leaders, with only five people currently overseeing operations. SWSG has been operating at Point Park for several years already, and its members are strong advocates of the program and its purpose.

“I think it’s important because it’s a cycle of empowerment,” Vittoria Willis, treasurer of Point Park’s SWSG and a senior elementary education major, said. “It isn’t just a one-way street. So you know we show up in these classrooms with these girls, and sometimes we tell them we’re majors they’ve never even heard of….And it opens up these doors they didn’t even know existed. We as mentors are empowered by them and their resilience and their dedication to coming and seeing us every week.”

Participating in SWSG actually determined Willis’ major. As a freshman, Willis came to Point Park undecided, but after working with the girls, she found her calling in education.

The connection between mentors and mentees can be very personal for some members, like Point Park SWSG co-president Kasey Newman.

“I think especially with the younger girls, I think back about my own childhood, and how I wished that I could have had someone who maybe who was still kind of young…just to have someone to talk to and look up to,” Newman said. “It’s just, seeing these girls, and hearing their stories really puts things in perspective because sometimes they share some really difficult things and they’re still happy and smiling and still going through, so they’re also like a source of inspiration as well.” 

In a normal year, mentors would travel to sites where the girls would be gathered in a classroom together. There, the mentors would start with an activity called “Rose and Thorns” where girls would share a good part and bad part about their day, then they would “get active” with the girls to release some pent-up energy. Following that, the mentors would teach the girls about an important woman in history, and the girls would journal about that lesson or another topic.

This semester, mentors will have to face the challenge of having to hold the sessions remotely. All mentoring is being done virtually via Zoom, but SWSG is hoping to be able to gather all the mentors together in a classroom or several classrooms to social distance appropriately. The sessions will now be an hour. Before, mentors spent an hour and a half with the girls each week.

The new method of mentoring does have a few silver linings. For a start, the program is still accessible for any remote students, and members like Serena Daywalt no longer have to worry about commuting to different sites.

A senior psychology major, Daywalt is the Events and Lead Advocate Coordinator for SWSG, but she is also intending to mentor for her last semester at Point Park. She said that the Zoom sessions allowed her to add that on as a responsibility.

“It’s not as stressful for me now because we completely took out travel time, which was the big reason I couldn’t mentor the last semester. So the fact that we’re fully remote, potentially meeting up in classes and Zooming as a group, really makes it a lot easier,” Daywalt said.

While the new way of mentoring brings convenience, it equally creates a sense of uncertainty. This is the first time the mentors will be engaging with the girls from a screen and not face-to-face, and there is no gauge to assess how the girls will respond to the adapted program before it actually begins.

“We’re not entirely sure how the girls are gonna be because I’ve heard stories from teachers and stuff where it’s a little more on the stressful side, but our girls are also really well-behaved at a lot of our sites, so I’m not that nervous about it,” Daywalt said.

A different concern the organization and mentors have is ensuring that the program will be as accessible for the girls as it has been in the past. A digital divide has been observed with many students in districts utilizing technology, particularly students whose families are listed in lower income brackets.

“I think 26 of our 40 sites are Pittsburgh Public [Schools], and we know for a fact that not every child in Pittsburgh Public has access to a device. A lot of the ones who don’t have access to internet, which is not something a ton of people are aware of,” Baston said. “So we don’t have the solution, but we are trying to be good listeners and find out who is having those challenges through our sites and our schools and communications and try to find ways to help. If we can partner with somebody to get them devices or things like that, we’re trying to do that.”

The curriculum for the fall will also be a little different from those of past years amid ongoing nationwide demonstrations calling for equity for Black Americans and Black people around the world.

“I know it’s been interesting to say the least the kind of stance that an organization can take being a nonprofit that there’s some interesting guidelines to that [and] I didn’t know that was a thing,” Newman said. “You can’t really outright say certain things. But I definitely know that race, especially Black Lives Matter, is going to be addressed….We can’t really ignore it when most of our girls are Black.”

The new curriculum is including more LGBTQ+ representation as well, with Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine to be one of the figures the girls will learn about this fall. 

Typically, new members would undergo training and have to pass necessary clearances, but this process is also being altered in response to COVID-19. All training is being done remotely as well and will take place over the course of a week instead of an all-day session as was usually done in prior years. The week-long training will start Sept. 28 and end Oct. 2. According to SWSG members, this is intended to provide flexibility due to the unpredictable circumstances from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Training will mostly focus on teaching mentors about Zoom as well as conducting trauma-informed care virtually.

“So knowing that our girls have gone through significant trauma, even if their home life is fine, these last six months have been traumatic for children, and there’s research that shows that,” Baston said. “And a lot of them—their home life isn’t fine, so they’ve been at home for these last several months in the middle of a pandemic and struggling with issues that we can’t even fathom so the mentors will be trained on caring for them in the midst of that trauma and what they need to know and will also be giving them a lot of tools for the virtual space.”

Some of those tools include breakout rooms in Zoom to allow for one-on-one conversations as well as hand signals that the girls can make to the mentors that would indicate they are in an unsafe home environment. If the mentors learn of any abuse occurring within the girls’ residence, they are required to report those situations.

SWSG members will meet weekly at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesdays via Google Meet instead of discussing business in person. The Point Park chapter feels “optimistic” about recruiting new members and retaining old ones, according to Newman, and diversity and equity will be key topics in those discussions. In lieu of SWSG’s classic food fundraiser Wake Up Wednesday, which has been canceled indefinitely due to its risk of spreading COVID-19, the Point Park chapter is teaming up with local food purveyors like Noodles and Company to raise funds.

Organizing a lot of these efforts have been a challenge for Willis, Daywalt and Newman, but they feel confident they as leaders can accomplish just as much if not more through listening.

“I think the bonds are more important than ever before. I think just getting to see people who  aren’t their family or their classmates or their teachers, is more important than ever before,” Newman said.

“It definitely makes you feel like you’re driving down a dark road with no headlights,” Willis said. “But you just have to hold the hands of the people who are there in the car with you and just pray you don’t go swerving off the road. I mean now more than ever we need our support systems, we need the people who are behind us as leaders to tell us what they need.”