Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in Dekalb County was one of 47 schools in Georgia selected to participate in the inaugural year of the Girls Empowering Movement (GEM) program. Physical education teacher, Sherry Griffith took on the role of GEM Adult Facilitator while navigating the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in the classroom, “In my first year, the students were virtual and I had one 6th grader in my class (face to face) that became a GEM Ambassador Leader. She was like a teacher to the other students. I began to realize that the title meant so much to the girls. They put on a new name and identity – like a superhero.”
What is GEM?
GEM is a pioneering initiative on a mission to improve the health and mental wellness of middle school girls. GEM achieves this by empowering these girls to take the lead in creating and participating in physical activity programs designed by girls, for girls. Learn more at GEMPower.org.
In its second year of the program (2022-2023), Bethune had grown to become the largest GEM site with 50 girls participating in the program. Griffith worked steadily alongside HealthMPowers staff to facilitate the program and support the girls as youth leaders. The Monday morning GEM meetings became a staple at the school, with 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade girls in attendance. “The girls discuss their visions and plans as a whole group diplomatically and democratically,” says Griffith. They also began to congregate into smaller, grade-level groups to work together throughout the week on activities and projects.
The girls designed and led a variety of activities during the year including brainstorming sessions, leadership training, parachute games, and lessons, 8th-grade volleyball training, school community service, a “silent disco” event held in the school’s gymnasium, GEM Ambassador Day, extra PE classes, Power Up for 30 events, and the Create A MOVEment project. In addition, the girls utilized program funds to purchase physical activity equipment for the group, including a large, outdoor trampoline which they worked together to assemble. The spirit of teamwork is notable among the group. “Our GEM group shows support to each other by helping one another and cheering each other on,” says GEM Ambassador Leader, Jadyn Porras.
“GEM is different from other sports because it’s a group of girls who work together to help other people and create opportunities to actually have fun while doing more physical activity,” says Porras. The difference is also evident to Griffith, “GEM focuses on the development and wellness of the whole child. It emphasizes project development and leadership skills. Additionally, the improvement of communication, character, and mental health is built into the program.”
Creating a MOVEment and Empowering Change Agents
In January, the girls embarked on their “Create A MOVEment”, GEM project. During this phase of the program, girls are empowered and supported to create more physical activity opportunities in their communities. As change agents, girls plan, design, and implement a project that reaches more girls and improves the health and wellness of their peers. As a HealthMPowers partner school, Bethune had participated in Power Up for 30 and the girls wanted to implement a similar initiative with their own hands-on approach. The 7th and 8th-grade girls spearheaded the idea of “GEM Ambassador Fitness”, an open gym session with a variety of physical activity stations held daily for 30 minutes after the lunch period for all students.
Student-Driven Change: Making a Difference
The girls recognized they needed support from the school administration to move forward with the plan and presented it at a faculty meeting. The teachers were impressed and began bringing their students to the gym after lunch to participate. GEM Ambassador Leader, Kennedie Crawford explains, “Our project was important because students don’t move around much after eating lunch, they would usually sit back down at their desks without moving for long periods of time.”
The girls continued to refine their project to meet the high demand of the school community, working diligently to coordinate and manage GEM Ambassador fitness on a daily basis. “The girls made announcements, posters, and solicited on foot to keep the population coming in, and continually made adjustments to meet their own expectations and held themselves and everyone else to high standards (including me),” says Griffith.
Leadership in Action: GEM Ambassadors Shine
The group’s leadership skills blossomed as they took on ownership of all aspects of the project including directing the large influx of students into the gym, maintaining a respectful environment between peers, setting up activity stations, and creating a fun and engaging atmosphere. The group selected and purchased additional physical activity equipment with funds designated for Create A MOVEment projects, enabling them to expand the array of activities offered. The stations included: basketball, volleyball, walking, jump rope, dancing, hula hooping, and more. In time, the girls noticed a change in their peers. “GEM Ambassador Fitness helps students to be more active and have more confidence,” says GEM Ambassador Leader, Rylee Fuller. “Students were really having fun and also looking healthy,” added Porras.
The Wider Reach: Transforming Lives
The impact of GEM Ambassador Fitness was felt throughout the school community. Teachers insisted that the girls continue beyond the planned 30 days of implementation, so they developed a sustainability plan that allowed the project to continue for the full semester. Students and teachers referred to the time as a “mental health break” and showed great appreciation to the girls for their leadership. The school’s principals asked if the group would facilitate a special session of GEM Ambassador Fitness for 8th-grade students while Georgia Milestones make-up exams were administered. The girls rose to the occasion, providing 13 well-organized indoor and outdoor physical activity stations for nearly 200 students in one day.
The Impact and GEM Transformation
The project revealed leadership, resourcefulness, and ingenuity in the girls and benefited the entire school community by improving mental, social, and physical health – reaching 450 students who participated on a regular basis. “I’ve learned that GEM isn’t just about girls, it’s about helping other students to be more successful,” says Fuller.
Griffith has witnessed considerable growth in the girls throughout this process, saying, “They had to practice being school leaders, became identifiable, and eventually recognized as leaders who embody the role nonchalantly and in humble nature,” she continues, “They make morning announcements in the principal’s office, travel around the building to put up posters and run errands for themselves, perform grade level distributions of water and food to other students and teachers, make presentations to their teachers and to the faculty and staff, and make special requests of staff members to support them. They are seemingly fearless about speaking up about their ideas, beliefs, and/or concerns regarding their participation, and take ownership in their identities as GEM Ambassador Leaders. They have embodied empowerment.”