Westbrook conference aims to encourage girls, women

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WESTBROOK — Girls willing to raise a ruckus will be a little hardier following an upcoming conference.

The annual Hardy Girls Healthy Women southern Maine conference is being held in Westbrook this year, at the community center. The April 7 event, which usually takes place at King Middle School in Portland, has been moved so it can take place on a weekday and more girls can attend.

Hardy Girls Healthy Women, which is based in Waterville, is a nonprofit that works with young girls “to challenge a society that ignores their brilliance.” The annual conferences, which includes one in Waterville on April 6, are part of the organization’s Girls Rock Weekend. There is also an awards ceremony planned for April 7 in Scarborough.

The Westbrook conference, which is open to anyone in fourth through eighth grade who identifies as a girl, will be held from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. April 7. Registration is $20 and can be done through the Hardy Girls Healthy Women website, which asks, “Are you ready to cause a ruckus?’

Girls can be signed up individually or as part of a school group. According to Hardy Girls President Kelli McCannell, five local schools will be sending groups, with Falmouth Middle School sending all the girls in seventh grade.

The conference is planned each year by the Girls Advisory Board, a group of 18 high school girls chosen by Hardy Girls. The high-schoolers have been planning the event since September and developing workshops geared towards their younger peers.

“We like our programs to be by girls, for girls,” McCannell said.

Around 200 girls are expected to attend the Westbrook conference, McCannell said. The day will begin with a kickoff introducing this year’s theme, “You do you, and I’ll do me.”

“It’s talking about knowing yourself and being yourself and not judging others,” McCannell said.

There will be short presentations from the Girls Advisory Board to the attendees on topics such as feminism and girls in the media. Later in the day, the girls will each choose two of 10, 50-minute workshops to attend. The workshops will also be led by the high school girls.

McCannell said it’s important for the younger girls to have the older ones present the topics. She said it’s encouraging and inspiring for the girls to hear about the topics that affect their lives from girls so close in age. 

While the girls are in workshops, their teachers, parents and chaperones will also have workshops to attend.

Following the workshops, there will be stations called “action spots,” where girls can get involved in activism.

“It’s little ways to use their voices and find out about other women,” McCannell said.

The girls are also invited to learn about their peers later that night at the 10th annual Girls Rock awards ceremony. The April 7 event will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough.

Six girls from across the state will be honored at the event. Receiving this year’s “Against the Odds” awards is Falmouth resident Julia Hansen. The 17-year-old founded the Yellow Tulip Project last year after losing two friends to suicide. Hansen, who also suffers from depression, started the project to help others and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Madelina Rocha, 11, of Portland, is receiving the “Community Organizer” award at the event. The fifth-grader, who moved to the U.S. when she was in kindergarten, now volunteers with kindergarten students who are new to the country to help them transition and adjust. Rocha is also a member of her school’s Civil Rights Team.

Others being recognized at the awards ceremony include Tyra Michaud, 19, of Frenchville, Grace McIntosh, 16, of Wilton, Hallie MacDougal, 16, of Lincolnville, and Johorey Abdirahaman, 17, of Lewiston. The keynote speaker for the event, which is open to the public, is Sea Bags President Beth Shissler.

McCannell said while the awards ceremony is a great way to recognize girls, the end of the conference earlier in the day is one of her favorite things. She said it’s amazing to see how empowered the girls are.

“By the end, the girls are so relieved to know other girls have the same struggles and ideas, and it’s like a weight is lifted off them,” she said. “It’s really fun to see at the end how much lighter they look and feel.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.