Camila Ramirez is a 9th grader at Fallbrook High School and has been with Girls Inc. in San Diego County since 6th grade. She has often struggled with her mental health and academics, but the challenges she was facing increased significantly when schools closed due to the pandemic. Camila and her entire family became infected by the coronavirus, which prevented her parents from working and led to intense financial difficulties.

Girls Inc. was able to step in and offer academic and emotional support to Camila to ensure that she didn’t fall behind in school and stayed on track. Because Girls Inc. could continue programming virtually, Camila was able to continue meeting regularly with her mentor to keep up with her studies and mental wellness.   

Support Beyond the Classroom

“There are a lot of challenges that our kids have been facing, and uncertainty and turmoil,” shared Sandra Ainslie, CEO of Girls Inc. San Diego (GISD).

The nonprofit serves middle and high school girls in Northeast County and the city of San Diego, with the goal of inspiring them to be strong, smart and bold through hands-on after school programming designed to prepare them to be mentally and physically strong, academically successful and confident in their futures.

‘Strong’ programs center around mental health and wellness education and practices; ‘smart’ programming focuses on STEM, academic success and career readiness; and ‘bold’ programs encourage community action and engagement.

GISD found itself switching gears drastically to continue serving its students when schools shut down at the onset of the pandemic. The organization knew it needed to act fast to keep the girls engaged.

A $10,000 grant from the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund supported GISD’s transition to virtual programming within two weeks of schools closing. Funding also focused on high school girls and their transition to college.

“We had a lot of girls that we knew were in a precarious spot because they needed to make that transition,” Sandra shared, adding that students were starting to lose steam and the ability to understand next steps.

The San Diego affiliate of the national Girls Inc. organization has been in San Diego County for 50 years. It started very small, running in Northeast County as “Girls Club” and primarily functioning in Escondido and Vista, serving first-generation migrant children of farmworkers. In the last 3 years, Girls Inc. expanded programming and now works with 5 San Diego Unified schools.  

GISD serves high-need and under-resourced communities that have faced significant challenges through the COVID-19 crisis, including learning loss and the digital divide.

The Intersectionality of COVID-19 & Racial Justice

In the wake of a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, plus the compounding inequities highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis, GISD started to hear from students that it was time to be ‘bold’. They wanted to know how they could participate in the national and local conversations regarding systemic racism and injustice.

Girls Inc. had to quickly respond to the needs of their girls, and the need was not for STEM – it was for social and emotional wellness. “Seeds of Change” was that response – the free 14-week, 10-session social justice program focused on creating conversations around racism, gender identity, privilege and advocacy for all girls.

“I know what it feels like to be discriminated by or not be listened to, and I don’t want anybody to ever feel that way,” shared Michaelah Stokes, a 14-year-old student at La Mesa Helix Charter High School who participated in the program. “I want to fight for people who want to stick up for themselves, but don’t know how to or if they feel as if they’re not being listened to. I just want to be the change that the world needs.”

Skills for College, Career & Beyond

The San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund at The San Diego Foundation has raised $66 million to date and provided grants totaling approximately $58 million to more than 200 nonprofits like Girls Inc. San Diego that have pivoted to continue serving the community over the past year through the crisis. Nearly 8 in 10 people served through the fund live in poverty, and 56% of grantees were able to secure additional dollars thanks to their Community Response Fund grant.

“There’s nowhere else like this,” students have said of GISD’s unique programming. Ainslie added that students say the type of conversations had through GISD programs like “Seeds of Change” would not happen in a school setting, and often don’t happen at home.

“Girls Inc. really prepared me for my future…it teaches you skills that you will be able to apply to college, work and life in general. Girls Inc. brought me more confidence,” shared Ruby, a program participant. Emma, another student served by the nonprofit, says that she has learned to be more outspoken.

“They granted me a safe and educational space that I am not usually exposed to, especially now. I am surrounded by people who I can have thought-provoking conversations with, which I am very grateful for.”