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Washtenaw United: 'Girls Group' Guiding Teens And Young Women In Washtenaw County To A Sound Future

Girls Group
Susan Smith
United Way of Washtenaw County

Young women in Washtenaw County can face many obstacles in life, whether they're financial, educational, or emotional.  Since 2003, Girls Group has been there to put these young women on the path to success.  In this week's "Washtenaw United," WEMU's David Fair has a conversation about the work Girls Group does with its executive director, Sue Schooner, and one of its first participants, Tanee Collins.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto 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.'


Girls Group empowers young women in middle school and high school to achieve emotional and economic self-sufficiency by graduating from high school and creating meaningful college and career pathways.  Girls Group provides year-round programming and mentoring to develop character, leadership, self-confidence and social consciousness, including the desire and ability to mentor others.  We do this through:

  • Fun and interactive programming
  • Navigation of academic and community resources
  • Long term caring and supportive relationships
  • Exposure to new, inspirational, and educational opportunities

Girls Group started in 2003, and currently serves 550 young women in Washtenaw County.  100% of Girls Group high school seniors have defied the statistics, graduated from high school, and started their college and career journeys.  As of 2019, Girls Group has celebrated 180 young women beginning their college and career experiences. We are proud that 30 of these students have already graduated from four-year universities, community colleges, or certificate degree programs.

Girls Group participants often face multiple risk factors for not completing high school, including economic and emotional hardships, housing instability, and lack of exposure to college and career opportunities. Girls Group helps these young women to recognize their true potential and develop transferable life skills, such as asking for help, owning their voice, and managing anger and anxiety.

Girls Group uses a strengths-based approach to educational and emotional development, focusing on four program themes:

  • Social/Emotional Readiness
  • Academic Readiness
  • Financial Readiness
  • Community Service

Girls Group makes a long-term, intensive investment in participants, from middle school through college and beyond, with four core programs:

Building for the Future: Weekly multi-site program for middle school and high school students, grades 6-12, operating 16 programs at ten sites (4 high schools, 5 middle schools, and Peace Neighborhood).

Summer Enrichment: College prep summer camps, weekly discussion groups, field trips, Adventure Club, and Book Club to help participants transition from one grade to another.

College and Career Prep: College tours, applications and essays, FAFSA support, SAT and ACT prep, scholarship applications, job shadowing, and one-on-one mentoring to promote college and career readiness.

Women of Purpose: Program for young women on their college and career journeys and beyond, including individual mentoring, group sessions, hands-on involvement at Washtenaw Community College, and mentoring of younger participants.

IN THE WORDS OF A GIRLS GROUP PARTICIPANT: “Girls Group made college an option for me.  When I thought about college before Girls Group, I didn’t think that I was ever going to be smart enough, and it was just too hard to do.  Girls Group convinced me that I could go to college if I really wanted to, and I just needed to work hard and have the right mindset.”

Girls Group
Credit Susan Smith / United Way of Washtenaw County
United Way of Washtenaw County
Sue Schooner and Tanee Collins from Girls Group in the WEMU studio.


Sue Schooner

Sue is the Founder of Girls Group, and has served as the Executive Director for the last 16 years.  She holds a BS in Accounting from Ithaca College, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.  Sue is a retired automotive executive, and developed mentoring programs at both the Chrysler Corporation and at Textron Automotive.  Sue’s experience in networking, strategy, business development, management, finance, and budgeting has helped Girls Group grow into a well-respected, low-overhead organization with enviable success.  She is proud of the excellent staff and Board of Directors at Girls Group.

Tanee Collins

Tanee has been actively involved with Girls Group for the last 16 years.  She was an original Girls Group participant in the 6th grade.  She was involved in middle school, high school, summer camp, college prep, and Women of Purpose (our program for young women on their college and career journeys).  She earned her undergraduate degree from Ferris State and her master’s degree from Spring Arbor.


Girls Group


One of United Way of Washtenaw County’s priorities is increasing the financial stability of individuals and families.  We recognize that the earlier financial education begins, the better chance for success.  We invest in organizations like Girls Group because they are uniquely positioned to support girls’ future success in a variety of ways, including through financial literacy and education. 
The Girls Group Financial Readiness Capacity Building project presents a valuable opportunity to increase the financial knowledge and skills of Girls Group staff and interns.  This type of capacity building will allow Girls Group to provide vital financial literacy and empowerment services to Girls Group participants.  As Girls Group staff capacity increases, financial readiness programming will be expanded to include lessons that can be adapted to the developmental and social needs of the populations served by Girls Group.

One of the unique strengths of Girls Group is the influence of our staff, interns, board members, and advisory board members who have lived experiences overcoming poverty.  The Financial Readiness Capacity Building project is powerful because of the learned and shared knowledge of these women.  They are living examples of what it is to overcome financial barriers and achieve success.  Participants directly benefit from these experiences, through lessons learned, advice, and support with navigating socioeconomic challenges faced at school, home, and in their communities.

AsJames Baldwin said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty, knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  Financial literacy is an indispensable tool for navigating society and building financial stability.  Unlike their more affluent peers, Girls Group participants cannot benefit from the “safety net” of generational wealth, knowledge, and experiences.  Girls Group recognizes that without generational wealth, financial literacy and empowerment becomes the “safety net” for the young women we serve.

Through financial readiness programming, Girls Group is building a community of “low-income” young women who are defining their values and beliefs around money.  As a result, participants are shifted from feeling disempowered and hopeless to feeling that they can access opportunity and have control over their financial futures.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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