Imagine if we nurtured the mind of every little girl. What if we watered their spirits and imaginations with the ideals of self-empowerment, creativity, boldness, positivity, education, leadership, passion for her interests, friendship, sisterhood? What kind of global garden of female accomplishment might flourish? They could rule the world. At Girls Inc. of Lakeland, that is just what they are doing, creating the successful women of tomorrow, inspiring all girls to be “Strong, Smart, and Bold.” Leading the charge in Lakeland is President and CEO Kay Fields.
Fields is girl power incarnate – a smart woman with intentions to create a reverberating impact on the world. She and a team of like-minded women help to guide the children in their charge through girlhood. Before her work with Girls Inc., Fields worked in the Agricultural and Labor Program’s early childhood development center in Winter Haven, supervising programs in Polk County, Indian River, and Fort Pierce.
“I felt led to do something different,” said Fields. She heard there might be an opening for the director position for the Girls Club. She applied and was offered the job. “I think the reason I was drawn to Girls Clubs back then, now Girls Inc., is I lost my mom when I was 12 years old. I used to go home by myself because my father worked, and my older siblings were in school. It wasn’t a great experience to go home alone,” she said. “Being able to have the opportunity to come to an organization like Girls Inc., where we do so many great things, to me, was just in alignment with my life.”
When she first started with the Girls Club, their facility was a few streets over from where it is now. “We were in old World War II army barracks that had been renovated too many times,” she said. In 1987, the organization launched a capital campaign to raise a million dollars to build a new facility. They moved into their new building in 1988. For 37 years, Fields has overseen Girls Inc. of Lakeland and has made it her mission to give girls the education, life skills, and opportunities to be comfortably and successfully themselves. Fields sees her role at Girls Inc. as a way to make a difference. “I want to leave the world better than I found it,” she said.
Strong. Smart. Bold.
Girls Inc. is an after-school program during the school year exclusively for girls. They offer all-day programs during spring break and summer camps. The primary focus of the organization is education and life skills. “Anything that you would want your daughter or your granddaughter or your baby sister or just a friend to experience as a girl, we do it here,” said Fields. They offer homework help and tutoring daily for girls reading below their grade level or who are functioning below level in math. The girls take classes in the culinary arts, dance, and life skill-focused courses in leadership and self-sufficiency. Girls participate in science and math activities, take field trips, and have physical fitness days. They even have a garden to teach girls the importance of nutrition.
“Every day is different,” she said. “The only thing that is consistent is that we do reading every day for 15 minutes, we do homework help and tutoring every day, but everything else is different because we want the girls to be exposed to as many activities as we can.” Every summer before the pandemic, teenage Girls Inc. members would tour college campuses. “A lot of the girls who are from single-parent homes were exposed to a college through our program, and that changed their way of thinking and they were able to go to college and graduate and now they’re successful.”
Fields has witnessed firsthand the tremendous impact that Girls Inc. has had on those coming through the program. Fields turned to the organization for her own daughters after a divorce left her a single mother to her son and two daughters. “It was a struggle for us, and Girls Inc. was very impactful in that there was stability in my daughters’ lives. And because of that, I can see the fruits of our labor at Girls Inc. – because I don’t do this by myself – in that they are both now successful.” Both of Fields’s daughters are occupational therapists, and one has started her own business.
Members who have graduated often come back to volunteer. Fields mentioned two young women who graduated high school this year and are now attending Polk State College. Each of them still comes to Girls Inc. to work with the girls, perhaps younger reflections of themselves, for a couple of hours each day. High school seniors who perform well academically and set a good example are given incentives. If they are willing to volunteer some of their time, they can become part-time employees of Girls Inc. during the school year and full-time employees during the summer. Even the daughters of former members now attend Girls Inc. “Now they’re sowing the seed back into their daughters’ lives because they really believe in what we do,” said the Girls Inc. of Lakeland president.
COVID Causes Cuts
It felt as if the world ground to a halt earlier this year. Many businesses felt the economic repercussions of the ongoing health crisis. Non-profits, like Girls Inc., were not spared the financial hardships presented by current times. “The impact was devastating,” said Fields. “One day, we were doing after school programming, and then the next day, we had to shut down because of the governor’s order. […] The girls were sent home to do e-learning, and we were trying to figure out how we could still be relevant in our work because the girls were not coming here.”
Girls Inc. of Lakeland sprang into action to keep their girls engaged by hosting virtual activities. Every week, they would perform wellness checks, calling the girls to make sure they were alright. They provided all the resources they could and told them about other resources available to them. Girls Inc. of Lakeland was without their girls for about two and a half months. “We decided as an organization that we wanted to try to provide, on a smaller scale, a summer camp,” said Fields. They opened their doors in mid-June for an 8-week summer camp with a more limited number of girls than they would typically accept.
COVID-19 precautions were put in place with no more than ten girls to each age group, restricted outside access to their building, including parents, temperature checks before entering, requiring girls to sanitize their hands when they arrived, and social distancing. “We try to do what the CDC recommends so that we don’t have anyone impacted by the virus, and thank God, we have been able to sustain ourselves, and nobody has gotten sick because of them coming through our doors.”
Every year, Girls Inc. hosts events to raise funds and community engagement. When the pandemic hit, they were preparing for their biggest fundraising event of the year in May, the She Knows Where She’s Going Awards Luncheon. This event and others were canceled. Like the 100 Ambassadors Breakfast in which folks come in to learn more about Girls Inc. and become advocates and ambassadors for the organization, and their scheduled November Father Daughter Dance. Fields gave some insight into the organization’s financial restraints amid the pandemic. “We haven’t been able to do any of our events. We had to think outside of the box and think of some creative ways to raise funds. We didn’t have girls coming, so parents were not paying any fees. We’re very blessed to be part of the Paycheck Protection Program, so we got a loan. If we had not done that, we would have had to layoff our staff.”
Girls Inc., a United Way organization, suffered another financial blow this year. “United Way was not able to complete their campaign because of the pandemic. We lost about 37% of our funding from the United Way this year,” said Fields. The cancellation of fundraising events, funding cuts, and lower attendance mean Girls Inc. needs community support now more than ever.
Fields says Girls Inc. has been blessed with community support through their 25 for 25 campaign they ran following the shutdown. “That was very successful for us. We were able to raise a substantial amount of money,” she said. “Now, we’re in a place where we’ve got to replenish that and keep things going so that we can be here to provide the services that our girls so desperately need.”
To uplift our future generation of girls, keep Girls Inc. in mind when making a year-end contribution to an organization. Donations can be mailed or made directly through their website. Contact Girls Inc. to arrange a donation of supplies like cleaning products, hand sanitizer, soap, and the like. Fields encourages the community to stay engaged with Girls Inc. of Lakeland for the many activities planned to celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. Plans continue for annual events in 2021, and the Girls Inc. team is looking into virtual fundraisers if physical events need to be postponed.
“We’re still hoping that things will get back to a place of normalcy, but we’re coming up with other ideas in case we do have to do some virtual events to maintain the resources that we need to keep our organization going strong,” Fields said. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to gradually increase our enrollment to where it was before, and we’ll be able to garner support from the community to help us financially and that we will be able to do some things that are creative and different to attract the resources that we need to maintain our program for our girls.”
Distance Learning Presents E-Opportunity
Girls Inc. launched an e-learning camp this year in response to the pandemic. “We realized there was a need to do something after we finished with summer camp for the fall to meet the needs of the girls whose parents were concerned about them going back to school,” said Fields. Now girls who did not feel comfortable going back to their brick and mortar schools come to Girls Inc., starting their days at 7:30 am and finishing between 3 and 4 pm before transitioning from e-learning to the after-school program.
With many parents continuing to work from home, not in need of Girls Inc.’s services, the organization had to find a way to stay relevant in meeting their girls’ needs. They’ve discovered consistent relevancy through their e-learning program. “Being able to provide that e-learning experience for the girls has really helped us because the girls are here from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, and we’re bringing in revenues from that program along with our afterschool program and trying to add more girls.”
“It ties back into our mission – we want our girls to be academically strong. Being able to help them with their online learning is a blessing.”
Inspiring Girls Like Her
Through the everyday challenges of running a non-profit and the unique difficulties presented by a global health crisis, Girls Inc. of Lakeland continues to educate and support girls from kindergarten through high school – inspiring them to be strong, smart, and bold.
Girls like 13-year old De’ Havilland. “I’ve been coming to Girls Inc. since my sixth-grade summer,” said the now eighth-grader.
De’ Havilland enjoys reading and writing, especially book reports. Girls Inc. gives her an outlet for those interests and so much more. “I enjoy that I can make new friendships and long-lasting bonds, and I get to meet different people. Every time I come here, it’s something different, and it’s a new experience,” she said.
Jha’Kyra is 12 years old and in the seventh grade. She has been attending Girls Inc. since around second grade. Like De’ Havilland, Jha’Kyra too loves to write. Girls Inc. has been instrumental in her studies as well as her friendships. The e-learning program at Girls Inc. has helped Jha’Kyra, who says that she was struggling with her schoolwork during the last school year, with distanced learning and no hub at which to do it. “Now I’m getting A/B honor roll, and I’m doing a really good job here doing my work,” she said. “It’s fun coming here because I meet new people every day, and I get to have conversations that I don’t have at home because I don’t have siblings at home like I have here. Everybody here is my sister because everyone here is nice and fun to talk to.”
Aubrie has been attending Girls Inc. since she was in kindergarten. The 11-year-old sixth-grader is especially interested in math and science. The staff at Girls Inc. encourage her in her academics and help her when she needs it. “I learned how to dance better and how to grow maturely. They help you with a lot of stuff – how to become a woman, how to get your education,” she said. Aubrie aspires to be either a masseuse or a dance teacher when she grows up.
“We’re important to the community because these girls are our future. […] I believe that every girl deserves to have a safe and nurturing environment like Girls Inc.,” said Kay Fields. “We’re not a babysitting service – that’s not what we do. We’re developing these girls to one day rule the world. Not just in Polk County but in the United States of America, and it is our responsibility to prepare these girls for that.”
FB: Girls Inc. of Lakeland, FL and Bartow FL
PO Box 1975, Lakeland, FL 33802