Focusing on education, self-image and aid, a new student organization is working to empower girls in Austin. GirlAdvocates! was started in fall 2013 by biology major Lauren Caton and is dedicated to bringing students and communities together to benefit young girls.
"One of our main focuses is education,” said Caton, now a junior. “We currently have a mentoring program at Webb Middle School with 50 mentors and the girls are really benefiting from it."
The members of GirlAdvocates! are matched up with girls at Webb Middle School and visit them weekly during the school’s lunch period.
“When I was in middle school and high school I really struggled with self-confidence and it led to me making a lot of really bad decisions for my health,” Caton said. “I really want to prevent that for young girls and if you instill that early on they become more assured individuals later and this mantra is what I've always been passionate about. I did this kind of work a lot in high school and I came here looking for that type of community and I couldn't really find it at the university level. So I took the initiative and started an organization that served this group.”
Anna Marie Pratas is the organization’s vice president of mentorship and is the one who pioneered the mentor program from the beginning. Like Lauren, she also sees young girls in middle school facing the same problems she and her peers faced back then and said the mentoring is a way to “pay it forward.”
“Knowing that their mentors are going to be there each week during lunch adds some stability that they may not be getting in other aspects of their lives,” said Pratas, also a biology junior. “It can be difficult to be across the table from someone who is very different from you and much younger than you and that's why we have different monthly themes to help start conversations instead of being preachy. We don’t have an agenda but instead are someone they can just talk to.”
They have monthly themes to discuss topics such as friendships and relationships, bullying, time management and college opportunities.
“The themes are recommended discussions to get a conversation started,” Caton said. “We are so thrilled to see the impact we are having on the girls.”
The group is also working on their own curriculum for an after school program that would focus on self-image topics. They envision a month-long program with weekly meetings to go over issues they may not hear about very often such as self-confidence, nutrition, healthy relationships and media.
For the aid aspect of the organization, GirlAdvocates! contributes to The Girl Effect, a group that works to invest in young girls around the world.
Although the organization is registered under the College of Natural Sciences, all UT students (even boys) are encouraged to join.
“Anyone that wants to help young girls is welcome to participate!” Caton said. “Everyone that has gone through it says they’ve benefited just as much as their mentee.”
For more information about GirlAdvocates! and how to get involved the officers encourage anyone to visit their website at: http://girladvocates.weebly.com/.