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Quality in Action: Wild Whatcom’s Girls Explorers Club

by School's Out Washington | | Posted under Afterschool and Summer News

Over the past year, School’s Out Washington (SOWA) has joined Women’s Funding Alliance in their mission to advance leadership for women and girls in our state.

As part of Women’s Funding Alliance’s Girls Leadership Organizations of Washington (GLOW) Initiative, SOWA has provided quality improvement training to a cohort of leaders from fourteen girl-serving youth programs. Together with Women’s Funding Alliance and their GLOW cohort, we are providing girls across Washington State with a wider range of quality leadership development experiences.

“Working with School’s Out Washington to deliver the Youth Program Quality component of our GLOW initiative has allowed our cohort members to develop strategies and shared language around quality in their programming,” says Women’s Funding Alliance President & CEO Liz Vivian. “We are thrilled to be working with SOWA and our GLOW cohort to strengthen the girl-serving ecosystem in Washington State.”

Program leaders at Wild Whatcom, a youth organization based in Bellingham, shared how their experience in the GLOW cohort and quality improvement process has shaped the culture of their programming.

“Wild Whatcom already had a strong approach to working with kids, but through the Youth Program Quality Assessment, coaching and peer learning, we have been able to come together with shared intention and a shared language around how we want to interact with the girls in our program and build a culture that is impactful," explains Hannah Thomas Plant – Girl’s Explorers Club Coordinator for Wild Whatcom.

Wild Whatcom engages more than a thousand children and families in a variety of year-round programs, with a goal of helping bring the joy of the outdoors to children and families throughout Whatcom County.  At the heart of the organization’s work is helping to create a community who really cares about connecting to nature.

While the organization runs a range of programs, Wild Whatcom’s Girls Explorers Club was the focus of their participation in the GLOW cohort.  Girls Explorers Club was founded about 15 years ago by a mother and her daughter and has since developed from a group of a few girls and the founder, to now over 150 girls participating in the cohort-based program.

Participants start in 2nd grade and stick together through 8th grade as they receive mentorship and engage in monthly outdoor adventures ranging from exploring a hidden cove, to learning different wilderness skills and connecting to community through service projects.  The long-term mentoring model combined with a focus on connecting to nature while also learning leadership skills, growing alongside peers, and building lasting relationships makes Wild Whatcom’s program unique.

“Our program strives to break through many elements of today’s American culture that isolate youth,” explains Hannah. “In our Girls Explorers Club, our goal is to treat the groups of girls sacredly and really honor their connection with each other, and the connection of the mentors to the youth.”

Meredith Hayes has been supporting expanded learning programs engaged in the Youth Program Quality Initiative for more than 7 years and is currently a SOWA coach. Being able to bring her knowledge and expertise around quality practice and engage Wild Whatcom in this process strengthened and built on the organization’s goals and vision which were very much in alignment with the quality intervention.

Meredith and Hannah describe the systemic implementation that has happened since engaging in YPQI as part of the GLOW cohort. At the staff level, they have observed an increase in staff willingness to try new strategies.  As they explain, “The process has gotten staff more comfortable in taking risks in how they mentor and in giving each other feedback, creating an increased awareness around practices and engagement between each other and with the youth participants.”

The intentional goal-setting has been a powerful piece of the process as well and has helped create an even more supportive environment both for the mentors and for the girls in the program.  “Our mentors have become really well-versed in providing feedback to one another that is helpful and builds on our collaborative goals in incorporating strategies to reflect on progress toward meeting our goal. Using language like, ‘I noticed this about’ or ‘you really hit the mark’ or ‘what’s another way’ feels supportive and empowering both for our staff and the girls.”

In terms of the impact on the girls in the program, Meredith and Hannah say goals they are setting, like wanting all the girls to have leadership opportunities whether they are introverts or extroverts, are making a difference in the program.

“We’re seeing our mentors mix up how they would normally provide an experience in different ways to strive toward this goal.  The impact of this intentionality is that some kids are stretching the edges of their comfort zone, some are rising to the occasion, some are needing to pull back – we’re really seeing that interplay between all of the personalities in each group on each outing. It’s a really powerful thing to watch kids be more self-aware.”

Of course with any new process comes challenges.  For Meredith and Hannah, the biggest challenge actually turned into a positive experience.  At first, their quality coach was located in Seattle which was hard to coordinate regular meetings.  Eventually, they were able to pair up with a local coach which opened up a whole new world of possibilities and easy access to the process.

“Learning the entire process and nuances of YPQI was daunting at first,” says Hannah. “There’s a lot of language and a specific framework that needs to be followed to be true to the process.  Having someone local has made a huge difference for us.”

When asked for advice to give programs just starting out the process, Meredith and Hannah said that for small organizations, it can be hard to wrap your head around such a structured framework: “It’s about the conversation, you just have to start it and step into the process and figure out how it’s going to best serve your program and then with coaching, training, and peer networking, you’ll get the support you need to keep it going and make it work for you.”

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