A place for girls to grow and learn and be themselves, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven is making a difference in the lives of girls within our community. More than an after-school program, it is enrichment and opportunity, art and expression, friendship, and giggles.
Even through a pandemic, the Girls Inc. staff, led by Executive Director, Peggy Threlkel, has continued to support girls’ education and personal development. Threlkel joined Girls Inc. of Winter Haven in 2007. The Girls Inc. mission to “Inspire all girls to be Strong, Smart, and Bold” resonated with her. The executive director grew up in Winter Haven, obtaining a graduate degree in psychology. Before her work with Girls Inc., she worked in the mental health division at Winter Haven Hospital for almost 11 years.
We spoke with Threlkel about the changes and challenges facing the organization and what the community can do to help.
A Space for Girls to Grow
Girls Inc. is an all-girl after school program during the year and an all-day camp during spring break and summer. “What we do is provide vital out of school enrichment and academic activities to help them grow and develop,” said Threlkel. In addition to girls receiving homework help, the organization offers structured programming covering everything from STEM and literacy to life skills like Economic Literacy, Leadership and Community Action, Media Literacy, and more. “We want them to learn something. We want them to get something out of it and be able to take that with them,” said Threlkel.
Other classes cover cultural and civic topics like Hispanic Heritage Month, Bullying Prevention, and their initiative called She Votes. “That’s a Girls Inc. program that talks about the voting process. What we did this week was: Who represents me?” said the executive director. Using the Girls Inc. of Winter Haven address, girls learned who represents them, from the mayor to the president. At the end of the course, the girls will participate in a mock election.
“Girls Inc. focuses on girl-only activities because girls can grow and develop more positively in an all-girl environment...” said Threlkel. “A lot of times, girls are not as excited in school, academically, because boys tend to get more attention in certain areas.” Those areas being math and science, explained Threlkel. She said some girls walk in and express their dislike for these subjects, but when given a fun project, working with other girls, it gives them the ambition to try. “It gives them the opportunity without feeling like they’re going to be made fun of, or feeling that they’re stupid, or having boys watch them. […] That’s still something that plays a key part in their thought process of how they are perceived and reacted to. So, we give them an environment where they’re free from that distraction.”
Even if they miss a question or give a silly answer, “They’re encouraged to try again, and that’s very valuable,” she said. “A lot of our young ladies do come from disadvantaged homes, and they may see only one way of thinking or doing things. We’re able to get them outside of that and help them to try differently. We’ve had parents say, ‘I need her to stay and finish her homework because I can’t do it with her.’ That’s valuable to me. If we can be that or do that for them because they don’t have anybody else who can – that’s a win. […] If we can help them grow into the best ‘them’ they can be, that’s a win.”
COVID Changes & Challenges
In March, when the school board announced that they were shutting down schools for several weeks, Girls Inc. followed suit, notifying parents they would not be open. The date to reopen was pushed back as COVID-19 cases rose. When they shut down, Girls Inc. sent out texts, emails, and made phone calls letting families know that if their child did need help with homework, they could set up individual meetings and help them with their work. Threlkel and her staff pivoted rapidly to host virtual Zoom sessions for the girls. By the second week of April, Girls Inc. of Winter Haven was running four days worth of virtual sessions per week, continuing through the end of the school year.
During the summer, the organization typically runs an 8-week summer program. “Waiting for the CDC and other guidance to come out, we pushed back our start,” said Threlkel. They reached out to the families of girls who had been with them throughout the school year to discuss offering a shorter, smaller summer camp. Some parents were not comfortable enough, while others would call every couple of days to ask about the program’s starting date. In the first week of July, Girls Inc. started a 5-week summer program, observing safety and social distance practices.
Threlkel’s next hurdle came with uncertainty surrounding school reopenings and how Girls Inc. would respond. They decided to open for regular after-school programming. Pre-pandemic numbers saw between 65 and 90 girls a day attending Girls Inc., whereas currently, with social distancing, it is capped at 40. Once things stabilize, the organization has the potential to expand classes in their big room. “We have a waiting list. That’s just dependent on making sure we have the facilitators to open that class up,” she said.
The pandemic also affected the Girls Inc. schedule. Girls used to arrive, get checked in, put their things in the homework room, wash hands, have a snack, and either go back to the homework room to finish their schoolwork or go outside for free time if they didn’t have any work to do. At 4:30, everyone would regroup and go into their classes for programming. A stark contrast with minimal contact, now girls go into their assigned classes, eat their snack, and do homework in their classrooms before doing programming. There are fewer girls and limited interaction between them to keep everyone safe.
Daily routines at Girls Inc. weren’t the only thing to change significantly. The girls themselves faced struggles with the shutdown. “It really impacted the families. There were families whose parents were still working,” said Threlkel. Some girls were with a different family member each day while their parents worked. “They had difficulty getting their work done,” she said. Threlkel fears last year could prove a setback in the academic careers of some of the girls. “I know there were students who did not grow to their potential last school year,” she said.
Funding at the Forefront
Though attendance is down, costs have risen for Girls Inc. “All nonprofits since March have significantly had impacts to their funding because everyone had to cancel their events like we did,” said Threlkel.
Now, Girls Inc. has increased needs for each child. Additional supplies were purchased so each girl could have her own set of markers, crayons, pencils, colored pencils, scissors, and glue, to avoid sharing. Even snack time costs have increased with individually packaged foods and juice versus portioning out as done previously. “The United Way was also a significant decrease,” said Threlkel. Girls Inc. is a United Way organization. Due to the pandemic, their funding from The United Way decreased by around 37%. “They can’t allocate what they don’t have,” she said.
“We’ve tried very hard to keep things as tight as we can so that we’re not significantly going above where we can be financially. […] It’s caused sleepless nights.” Financial donations are an investment in the future of the community’s strong, smart, bold young women. Donations can be mailed or made directly through their website. Supplies, including paper products, individually wrapped snacks, and cleaning products, are also needed.
Angels Among Us
A hard hit to their budget this year was the cancellation of the spring fundraiser, the She Knows Where She’s Going Luncheon. Funds from that event lead the organization into summer and carry them through to their other fundraising event in the fall, Angels Among Us.
Girls Inc. of Winter Haven is moving forward with Angels Among Us with stringent coronavirus safety measures. The event will be on Tuesday, November 17, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm at Venue 650.
Girls Inc. board members have been closely monitoring CDC guidelines to ensure a safe event, according to the Board of Directors President, Mary Beth Hundley. “The event space will hold 650 people. We normally have attendees in the 250 range. That leaves plenty of space to spread out and mingle. We also have the outside space as well that we can take advantage of and give the guests a little fresh air,” she said. Guests will be given their own pen during check-in to use for bidding on silent auction items, hand sanitizer will be plentiful, and guests have the option to wear a mask.
This year, Girls Inc. added another sponsor level for supporters to donate, according to Hundley. “We understand that some folks will still not be comfortable getting out to an event but may want to still contribute without purchasing a ticket. This will be very important to the organization, as this is our only fundraiser this year! The Girls need everyone’s support,” she said.
Find the event on their Facebook page, which will lead to the RSVP screen to purchase tickets or donate. Girls Inc. is always looking for sponsors and raffle items. Contact them through Facebook.
The ‘Girls’ in Girls Inc.
Girls who attend Girls Inc. are our daughters, sisters, granddaughters, and nieces today. With the guidance, education, and programming offered by Girls Inc., along with their own ambition and girl power, they will be our doctors, congresswomen, lawyers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and world leaders tomorrow.
Nine-year-old Riley has been coming to Girls Inc. for three years. “I like that they do a lot of fun activities, and they help us learn,” said the fourth-grader. She enjoys flexing her creativity through drawing, coloring, and making things – like a movie projector she made for a prompt with only a bag of assorted items, merging creativity and engineering.
Everything from STEM to literacy, learning about new people, and experiments interest 12-year-old Lyrique. “I like writing essays,” she said. “I like opinion essays and argumentative essays like ‘Should you wear masks and how they can protect you.’ I’m doing that in online school, and I like writing about that.”
Camaiah, 8-years-old, says, “I like to do activities. I like to color and draw.” Math and reading are the third-grader’s favorite subjects. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up. “I want to teach all grades except for college,” she said.
For the organization’s future, Threlkel said, “I would love for things to go back to normal, but I don’t know what normal is going to look like. [...] I do see us and others being able to go back to some semblance of the way we used to do things. I see us being able to have a separate area where girls can come and do their homework altogether even though they’re from all different schools and going back into different classes.”
“I think we can come out of this on the cusp of moving forward and becoming even stronger,” said Girls Inc. of Winter Haven executive director Peggy Threlkel. “It’s just a matter of what it will look like.”
Girls Inc. of Winter Haven
P.O. Box 7285
Winter Haven, FL 33883-7285