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If you walk into the stately yellow Girls Inc. building at 50 High Street in Lynn on any given day, you might smell cookies baking. You might see the girls dissecting squid. You’ll definitely see lots of smiles. 

“The socio-emotional health of our girls is very important to us,” says Donna Crotty, director of development and communications for Girls Inc. of Lynn. “Very rarely do you see a sourpuss.”

Girls Inc. is a nonprofit with affiliates all over the U.S. and Canada that is dedicated to giving girls from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds the tools they need to succeed. Led by executive director Deb Ansourlian, the group provides mentoring and vital programming on topics like STEM education, money management, advocacy, and how to lead healthy lives. “We really give them the confidence and ability to navigate things that I only hope I could give to my own kids,” says Crotty. 

Photograph by Spenser R. Hasak

During pre-COVID times, the Lynn location offered childcare programming for school-age girls that was attended by almost 170 girls per day, with a 70-person waiting list. During middle school, Girls Inc. students begin to dip their toes into financial literacy and STEM education, while also developing communication and personal development skills.

At the high school level, girls apply the leadership skills they’ve been learning through peer mentoring. They’re given the tools they need to prepare for college and careers while staying grounded by building relationships with each other, expressing creativity, and staying informed and educated about current issues. They might lead a discussion about societal injustices during “Woke Women,” share their cultures during “Culture Club,” or learn about mental disorders and coping skills such as art, writing, and cooking in “Awareness in Mental Health.”

 Deb Ansourlian (third from right) poses with Girls Inc. alumni. Courtesy Girls Inc.

They’re not just leaders in the classroom; the girls work on real-life solutions to real-life problems. “They go out into the community and they’re the ones who are doing the outreach,” says Crotty. They helped pass the plastic bag ban in Lynn, and they led the movement to raise Lynn’s smoking and vaping age from 18 to 21.

“Girls Inc. believed in me,” says 18-year-old Syeeda Rahman. “I’ve always had big ideas, but I didn’t always have a support system and a platform. Girls Inc. provided me with both.”

Donna Crotty, director of development and communications

In 1942, Girls Inc. of Lynn began as the “Girls Club of Lynn,” offering a space for girls to come after school and connect with each other, build character, and practice domestic skills like cooking and sewing. Though they’re now an affiliate of the over-150-year-old national organization Girls Inc., and these days they also encourage building skills in the science, math, and technology fields, some of their foundational practices remain the same.

“Sometimes the girls are mentoring and they’re making cookies,” says Crotty. “It’s a way to create conversation and do an activity together and open up lines of communication.”

The nonprofit receives funding through partnerships with local corporations and foundations like National Grid, Eastern Bank, and the Boston Scientific Foundation, as well as from individual donors. Crotty estimates that around 80 percent of their generous individual donors live in the North Shore community. They also receive state funding for their childcare program, and grants from the Department of Public Health for their substance abuse and health and sexuality programming.

Haja Ba. Courtesy Girls Inc.

When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, Girls Inc. sprang into action, providing their girls with resources like loaned computers and virtual programming. This new virtual format for education (and life in general) has opened doors for Girls Inc.’s programming—for example, a real medical examiner who’s also an NYU professor is teaching their forensic science class. “All of a sudden, where it was sometimes hard to get guest educators into the building, we have all this freedom because it’s virtual,” says Crotty, “as much as we miss having the girls here in person.”

Their annual Girl Hero Scholars luncheon, which celebrates the three high school seniors chosen to receive the Girl Hero Scholarship, took place virtually on June 4 and featured Fatoumata “Haja” Ba, Syeeda Rahman, and Caloline Namutebi. “We knew we couldn’t cancel that event no matter what,” says Crotty. “They work so hard to get to this moment.” 

The scholarship, endowed by the Moyer family, has a rigorous application process, but this year’s three winners couldn’t be more deserving.

Haja Ba joined Girls Inc. as a young girl and has blossomed into a staple leader in her community. A recent grad from KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, she was student council president and co-founded KIPP’s first Black Student Union. At Girls Inc. she co-facilitated “Woke Women.” “Haja is someone who’s quite amazing in that she’s a natural leader,” says Crotty, noting Ba’s listening skills and incredible empathy. 

Syeeda Rahman. Courtesy Girls Inc.

Syeeda Rahman moved from Bangladesh to the United States 10 years ago. She held several leadership positions at Lynn English High School, and currently works as a Teen Health Ambassador at Girls Inc. Rahman recently ran a town hall program called Cov-Ed where she educated folks about COVID-19, not only in her community but also at a state-wide virtual town hall and in an interview for WGHB radio. “Talk about leadership,” says Crotty. “She wasn’t going to sit back and wait; she was going to take action and help educate her community.” 

Rahman counts her first day of Cov-Ed classes among her fondest Girls Inc. memories. “[Girls Inc.] helped me gain the confidence I need to execute my big ideas,” says Rahman, who’s currently curating lesson plans for “Woke Women” and for a Black Lives Matter poster campaign. She’ll be attending Suffolk University in the fall for political science and public health, and plans to subsequently attend law school and help drive change in low-income communities. 

Caloline Namutebi. Courtesy Girls Inc.

Caloline Namutebi moved to the United States from Uganda just a year and a half ago, in January 2019. Also a Teen Health Ambassador, she’s worked at the North Shore Medical Center and participated in Harvard Medical School’s Health Professions Recruitment & Exposure Program, working toward her goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. She plans to begin her pre-requisite classes at North Shore Community College before transferring to a full-time nursing school.

And these aren’t the only impressive Girls Inc. girls going places; one of the co-creators of “Woke Women,” Aryanna Richardson, now works on a national advocacy committee in Washington, D.C. “She’s working on real social issues,” says Crotty. Another alum, Ivanna Solano, is the director of Girls Inc.’s new Boston expansion, which recently launched in November 2019. 

“In 2005, 2006, I was meeting girls who are now out in the world doing great things,” says Crotty, who recently brought back an alum (who’s now a professor at Rutgers) as a speaker for the group. “I’ve seen the trajectory of what the program at Girls Inc. can do,” she says. “I’ve seen it come full circle.”

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