With a mission to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga has served over 27,000 girls age 6-18 since the organization was founded in 1961. In 2017, a new Chief Executive Officer took the helm, positioning Girls Inc. to continue to expand its impact and innovative programming and help more girls in our community grow into healthy, educated, and independent adults.
“I have a huge passion for this community and a desire to leave Chattanooga better for our next generation,” says Melissa Blevins, CEO of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga. “I have been inspired meeting women who came through Girls Inc. programming 20 or 30 years ago who are now in successful careers in large corporations in Chattanooga. It is amazing to see the depth of impact of Girls Inc. and to look ahead to the future as we focus on growing our impact.”
Prior to joining Girls Inc., Blevins spent almost six years as the Director of Programs and Operations for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank where she helped develop a network of community partners to support expansion of the organization’s food distribution programs. Blevins has also served as Chairwoman for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and has served in many other volunteer capacities for Susan G. Komen. These community connections have proven invaluable in her new role at Girls Inc. as the organization works on strategic growth goals to reach more girls over the next five years.
“We are making sure that we are very intentional with our growth, and we are working with other nonprofits and other schools and looking at ways we can work together to maximize our impact,” says Blevins. “We need to be thinking about how to share resources, where there is overlap, where there are gaps, and how we can better serve this community together.”
Girls Inc. of Chattanooga is part of a national network of Girls Inc. nonprofit organizations serving girls at more than 1,400 sites in 400 cities across the U.S. and Canada. The organization is committed to providing research-based programming focused on the development of the whole girl. Local affiliates have the autonomy to offer programs and curricula developed at the national level, as well as customized programming to address specific needs in their community. Offering a variety of after school programs, summer camps, and college preparatory experiences, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga has been an exemplary model and was recognized as the 2015-16 Affiliate of the Year by Girls Inc. national.
“One of the programs we are incredibly proud of is the Bookwork Club, which is an after school program focused on the five building blocks of literacy,” says Blevins. “We have been able to move the needle for girls in first, second, and third grade and help them become proficient readers. We’d love to continue to scale the program.”
The Bookworm Club is currently offered at East Ridge and Woodmore Elementary Schools, as well as the Shepherd and South Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Centers. The results are promising: while just 37 percent of third graders in Hamilton County are reading at grade level, 80 percent of girls who have participated in the Bookworm Club program are reading at grade level in third grade. Girls Inc. also works with Brainerd United Methodist Church and City of Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Centers to offer after school programming focused on college and career exploration, leadership and life skills, women’s history, community service, character education, conflict resolution, physical fitness, academic enrichment, and the Media Smarts curriculum, which helps girls investigate how the media shapes our culture.
Research shows that middle and high school are critical transition points for girls as they navigate gender, economic, and social barriers, and Girls Inc. offers several programs to help girls thrive and prepare for college and future careers. The Build IT program offers middle school girls hands-on, design-based STEM experiences promoting information technology fluency. The Road to College Success program helps girls learn about goal setting, career options, decision-making, money management, interview etiquette, and other valuable life skills. Through the Women’s History Project, high school girls learn about African American women’s history, learn traits of impactful leaders, and serve on the selection committee for the annual UnBought and Unbossed Awards.
“The UnBought and UnBossed Awards provide an opportunity for Girls Inc. to recognize women in our community who have been leaders in addressing the needs of girls and young women,” says Blevins. “The honorees selected each year mentor the girls and meet with them several times to support them through graduation.”
Dr. Martina Harris, Assistant Dean of the School of Nursing at Chattanooga State, was selected as one of the 2018 honorees for her work to support and promote diversity across the nursing field, as well as her volunteer work with the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. “I have such gratitude for Girls Inc. for what they are doing to work with these young women to make a difference in their lives,” says Dr. Harris. “My mentee is a first generation college student like myself, and it is so great to see an organization in Chattanooga that impacts girls in such a positive way. I am looking forward to continuing to work with Girls Inc.”
Dr. Harris and the other seven honorees will be presented awards at the UnBought and UnBossed Awards Luncheon on April 11, 2018, which celebrates the honorees, mentees, and impact of Girls Inc. (see sidebar). “I think it is really important for these young women to start to build a network of support with successful female leaders before they graduate high school,” says Blevins. “Many of our honorees and their mentees have long-term relationships and continue to stay connected once the girls start college. We are proud that girls participating in our high school programming have a 100 percent graduation rate.”
For Blevins and her staff, Girls Inc. is a place that brings the community together to support and inspire girls on their life journey—a place that sometimes offers the only stability and constant in a girl’s life. “There is so much opportunity to invest in these young girls,” says Blevins. “They are the leaders of tomorrow for this community, and we need to level the playing field and help them succeed.”