Washtenaw United: Girls Group celebrates 20 years of empowering young women in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti
ABOUT SUE SCHOONER:
Sue Schooner is the founder of Girls Group and has served as the Executive Director for the last 20 years. Girls Group began because Sue believed that with the right support, each young woman could graduate high school, get to and through college, and become economically and emotionally self-sufficient. She believed that if she cared, others would care too. She was right.
Sue holds a BS in Accounting from Ithaca College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Sue is a retired automotive executive and developed mentoring programming at both the Chrysler Corporation and Textron Automotive. Sue’s experience in networking, strategy, business development, management, finance, and budgeting has helped Girls Group to grow into a well-respected, low-overhead organization with enviable success. Sue is proud of the excellent staff and Board of Directors at Girls Group.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And on today's Washtenaw United, we're going to take a moment and celebrate. I'm David Fair, and it was back in 2003, Girls Group in Washtenaw County got its start. Now, it's celebrating twenty years of empowering young women to achieve emotional and economic self-sufficiency by ensuring they graduate from high school and begin their college or career journeys. The program has grown, but so has the need for it. And many of the issues that serve as barriers, well, those remain the same. Today, we're going to take a look on Washtenaw United with Girls Group founder and executive director Sue Schooner. Thank you so much for making time for us today.
Sue Schooner: Thanks, David. It's nice to be here again.
David Fair: First of all, congratulations on 20 years!
Sue Schooner: Thank you! We're so excited! And we're so proud!
David Fair: Did you imagine, back in 2003, you would still be doing this two decades later?
Sue Schooner: No, I did not. I never really understood the reality of so many barriers that these young women faced. And so, the more time I spent with them, the more I became committed to them and to the work and, you know, almost 20 years ago became the most important thing in my life. And it's still that important to me. And it's transformed me the same way that it's transformed all the young women we serve.
David Fair: One would imagine that over a course of 20 years, there is an evolution. How is Girls Group different today than it was when you began back in 2003?
Sue Schooner: Well, first off, it's a lot larger because, in the beginning, it was just 10 sixth graders at Slauson Middle School. Now, we serve 1000 young women in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And so, it's become a program which is unique in that we ideally meet girls in sixth grade, and then we continue our relationships with them through middle school, high school, college and career. So, the young women who I met when they were 12 years old are now 32 years old.
David Fair: You've clearly identified educational opportunity as a barrier to future success is it's not equal for everybody. In your experience with Girls Group, what role do you see systemic racism playing in limiting opportunity?
Sue Schooner: You know, people tend to stereotype or make assumptions about young women and young men. You know, I truly believe that anybody that works in the school system works there because, you know, they love youth and they want to make a difference. But they also realize that people that work in the school system just become exhausted. And I think that, you know, young people that are under duress may sometimes, you know, act out or be tired or not be their best selves because there's stuff going on at home or socially or emotionally. And then, that impacts how they perform in school. But I think that sometimes they aren't given the benefit of the doubt, you know, because of how they look or because they've had a bad week or whatever. And then, they also have the issue of not having role models that look like them. And I think that part of what difference we make is that we're, like, very selective in who our staff members are, and we have a very diverse staff. And so, it's really important for the young women to go to Girls Group and see all the women that look like them who went through the same challenges, who became very successful and learned how to work and succeed within the system.
David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Girls Group founder and executive director Sue Schooner continues on 89 one WEMU. As you mentioned, Sue, Girls Group is now serving over 1000 young women in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, providing educational support and academic tools to succeed today and in the future is vital to what you do. But how important is that more personal component of helping these girls feel seen, heard and valued?
Sue Schooner: I think the social/emotional component is really important. I think that our girls are intelligent. I think that they're motivated, but they often feel as if they don't fit in in the school system and that they're different. And I think that all of us do best when we do feel loved and seen. And so, part of what we do academically and social/emotionally is we give girls a voice, meaning find their voice, speak their voice, and then help other people to speak their voice. And we teach students about their learning styles, how to be organized, how to get their homework done, how to advocate for themselves, how to go as teachers and guidance counselors for help and would they know that we're a safe place where they can come and talk things out, which means that they can just breathe and then start fresh each day.
David Fair: So, what is the high school graduation rate for these young girls that you are working with?
Sue Schooner: Yeah. So, if the young women stick with Girls Group, then 100% will graduate from high school. And part of that is because we don't give up on students. So, if students have a hard time in four years, then we'll help them through their fifth year. We'll help them get a G.E.D. or help them make up their classes. So, sometimes, if girls are having a hard time in school, there's not necessarily the support system to make sure that they graduate from high school. However, graduating from high school is a huge step in terms of getting out of poverty and having a better life for oneself and for one's children.
David Fair: So, you mention that all who stay with Girls Group will ultimately graduate high school or get their G.E.D. What becomes of those who drop out of Girls Group, and you can't entice to come back in?
Sue Schooner: We sort of feel that however much time you spend in Girls Group, it will change your life. So, for example, if you end up graduating from high school, graduating from college and having children, then you will know exactly how to help your child graduate from college as well. You know, even if you don't end up being a college graduate, you still have all these years of someone saying, "You can do it. You're smart. We believe in you. This is how you study. This is how you network. This is what a college tour looks like. And you belong on the college campus," which means at least you have this belief within you, so that when you're bringing up your own child, you know how that tell your child, "Yes, you can do it. I've seen it. I've been on a college tour. I have friends. I have people that look like me that have been to college. And I know that you can do it as well."
David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And today, we are talking with the founder and executive director of Girls Group in Washtenaw County. Sue Schooner is her name, and she and the organization are celebrating 20 years of work in the community this year. Now, another part of your job is to fundraise. And your 20th annual fundraiser is coming up this Saturday, November 11th. It's going to run from 10 a.m. until noon at the Morris Lawrence Building on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. How much money does it take to run Girls Group on an annual basis?
Sue Schooner: It takes $1.4 million a year. And then, we also are running a 20-year campaign to help us grow in the future. So, we actually have a waiting list of hundreds of young women that still want to join Girls Group. And it's pretty sad that we aren't able to serve them because if you have hundreds of young women that say, "I want to do the work, I want to study, I want to show up. I want to commit myself to making a difference," then we should have the capability to serve them. And so, we're hoping to not only raise the $1.4 million that takes us for ongoing operations, but we'd also like to raise additional funding, so that we can serve hundreds more students next school year.
David Fair: Well, you mentioned again, that Girls Group serves over 1000 young girls, and you would like to serve more. We know about 30% of low-income students or students of color will not graduate from high school and, as you mentioned, continues the cycle of poverty and feeds into other negative societal issues. How many more students could you help? I mean, do you have another 1000 kids that could use your help?
Sue Schooner: Yes, absolutely. At this point, you know, we're very selective about who we work with because we can't serve everyone. But the reality is that so many people need Girls Group. I mean, I realized that I had certain privileges, but there were so many things socially and emotionally that were lacking in my growing up, and it would have made such a difference in my life. So, right now, we're focused on the students who need us most desperately. But this is a time where young people are facing so much social anxiety and so much stress, and there are large amounts of girls and young women who would like our support.
David Fair: So, you mentioned that, again, this started 20 years ago. And the girls you were working with back in 2003 are 32 years old now and have gone on--many have gone on--to college and successful lives. Do they come back? Do they share their stories with the students of today, so that these students do see the success that is possible?
Sue Schooner: Yes, they do. I think one of the most amazing things that I've seen over the years is how much the older girls want to mentor and want to give back. So, they see how Girls Group made a difference in their lives. And so, not only do they mentor younger Girls Group participants, but they mentor their siblings and other kids in the neighborhood and their cousins. So, it's just something that grows and grows and grows. And it's really powerful.
David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for taking time to talk with me today, Sue. And congratulations on 20 years of making a difference.
Sue Schooner: Thanks so much. I really appreciate you.
David Fair: That is Sue Schooner. She is founder and executive director of Girls Group in Washtenaw County, helping us to look back at 20 years of service to young women in our community. If you'd like more information on the work Girls Group is doing today and moving forward, visit our website at WEMU dot org. We'll also include the link for registration to the Girls Group 20th annual fundraiser this Saturday from 10 a.m. until noon at the Morris Lawrence Building on the Washtenaw Community College campus. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
Girls Group has been a long-time partner of United Way, who strives to empower and help economically disadvantaged girls in Washtenaw County achieve academic success and career stability.
From November 2021 - June 2022, Girls Group received a $20,000 award from United Way’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund— a one-time support to meet pandemic-related needs of ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained and Employed) households --those that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living.
Girls Group is also a current recipient of the 2022 Community Impact Fund—which supports solutions that mitigate and disrupt the intersectional impacts of poverty, racism, and trauma, in Washtenaw County. The organization has received an award of $37,500 for unrestricted general operating support.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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