Inspiring girls

ST. PETERSBURG — University Preparatory Academy and Girls Inc. held an open house to showcase the work of participants in its Operation SMART Summer Camp program earlier this month. The two organizations have formed a partnership to bring literacy and youth development services to the girls of south St. Petersburg.

The Girls Inc. Operation SMART Summer Camp targets girls 5 to 18 and provides a safe environment in which the girls pursue development of skills in three educational focus areas: literacy, health and wellness and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The curriculum is an extension of the work successfully implemented in previous summers at the Girls Inc. Pinellas Park location.  Attendees were able to view the educational works and hear the young ladies talk about what they have so far this summer.

A group of girls ranging in ages from 5 to 11 presented the Girls Inc. Bill of Rights.  Later, Destiny McCullum and Elissa Reix, students at Gibbs High School, spoke to the group about the water filtration project they developed. Younger students, Ashanti Davis, 11, Ashleigh Moore, 9, and Gorgeous Keys, 5, spoke about various STEM projects they have worked on including the planting of a vegetable garden.

The camp is the brainchild of a small group of community advocates led by Bridgette Heller, a native of south St. Petersburg who has spent her career working for various large corporations.  Heller was most recently the President of Merck, Inc.’s Consumer Health Division.

“Whenever I am asked to tell my story, I think of St. Pete because my story starts here,” Heller said.  She went on to talk about how we must act now to address the current statistics for girls in the community with 38 percent not completing high school, high rates of teen pregnancy and girls living in poverty.

The open house was attended by community dignitaries including Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and Lori Matway, the associate superintendent of Student and Community Support Services for Pinellas County Schools.  Midtown Urban Affairs’ Director, Nikki Capehart, opened the session by inviting Welch to lead the group in prayer for the community’s children and especially the girls served by this program.

She then talked about the importance of the female role models and peer mentors in her life and the continuing need for peer support among African-American professional women.

Heller closed the session with a plea for community support to “help these girls reach their potential. They are me and together we can help them become strong, smart and bold leaders of the future.”

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