EmpowHERing Youth: Annual Retreat Gives Girls Passion and Purpose

For the past three years, an annual event in the Greater Lansing area has helped promote positive personal and professional change in girls and young women.

Suzy Merchant, head coach of Michigan State University (MSU) Women’s Basketball, and MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business have partnered since 2016 to provide girls from divergent backgrounds with the tools needed to bolster self-confidence and instill purpose in their lives. The two-day empowHER Leadership Retreat at East Lansing’s Breslin Center showcases expert speakers on topics ranging from nutrition to self-defense for fourth to ninth graders.

“We hear amazing stories and, you know, that’s the thing, I just want to save one girl. … If we make a difference and save one girl from making a tough decision or going down a path that she shouldn’t go, then we’ve done our jobs – and that’s what it’s all about,” Merchant told WILX-TV at this year’s retreat.

According to attendees and their parents, lives have indeed been changed by the experience.

“EmpowHER provided a unique experience for my fourth-grade daughter,” said Lansing resident Bernadette Terranova. “Especially during a time in her life when cliques and bullying gather strength, creating an all-female, all-positive environment surrounded by girls and women supporting each other … I am so thankful for the opportunity for my daughter to be part of this incredible leadership retreat.”

In Honor of an Athlete

Although empowHER is designed to elicit inspiration at an early age, the triumphs of the retreat were born from tragedy. After suffering years of debilitating depression, April Taylor Bocian – an 11th grade student at Kennedy Catholic High School in Pennsylvania – committed suicide in 2015, one week after her 17th birthday. 

“Suzy Merchant was recruiting her. MSU was one of the many schools that were recruiting her,” said Kristin St. Marie, retreat co-chairwoman and assistant director of open-enrollment programs for the College of Business’ Department of Executive Development Programs. “When Suzy heard about the fact that she had taken her own life, it really hit her hard, and she thought, ‘I’m in a position to do something.’”

After running into some financial roadblocks to honor Bocian and empower young girls, Merchant turned to St. Marie and the Eli Broad College of Business for help.

“Suzy and I had worked together on some programs in the past, and she knew I had done a lot of educational programming,” St. Marie said. “What she didn’t know is that I am very passionate about women and leadership.”

Formulating a plan to host a weekend of educational and interactive workshops was the easy part, so organizers focused on the bigger obstacle of fundraising to pull it off. Organizers generated $30,000 in donations and sponsorships in the first year, paying for expert instructors to host the workshops and providing each attendee with some swag.

At the same time, the cost to attend empowHER was held to $25 per child for both days of the event, and that price continues to this day. St. Marie noted that it costs organizers roughly $200 per child to put on the event, which makes annual fundraising a top priority.

Bocian would have turned 20 this year, and the empowHER retreat has always fallen on or around Bocian’s April 28 birthday.

“Our deepest gratitude to coach Suzy Merchant, guest speakers and the numerous volunteers and sponsors that honored April’s life with such a meaningful and enriching event … April’s beautiful soul is reaching more people than ever imagined,” the Bocian family posted on the website for the April T. Bocian Memorial Foundation after the first year of the retreat.

Building a community

There is one word that frequently returns when discussing empowHER: community.

“We’re trying to create a community where the girls stay engaged,” St. Marie said. “Ideally, we want to build leadership and confidence and get them feeling good about who they are.”

In its first year, roughly 150 girls took part in empowHER. That number doubled in the second year and a one-night program aimed toward parents was added.

This year, organizers raised $80,000 for the retreat and expanded the offerings to fourth-graders. In all, about 450 girls attended the 2018 event from April 27-28 at the Breslin Center; 100 spots were made available this year at no cost for at-risk youth. St. Marie said about 90 percent of attendees come from Greater Lansing, however, some girls have come from Traverse City, Detroit, Grand Rapids and even out of state.

Girls are divided into groups of 10 by grade levels and are paired with one or two college-age mentors for the weekend. The retreat kicks off with a keynote speaker; this year, it was MSU graduate and female sports agent Molly Fletcher. Several general workshops for everyone are held throughout the weekend, such as sessions on yoga and self-defense.

There are also age-specific sessions held each day. The format that organizers have found the most successful includes sessions on nutrition and bullying for fourth- and fifth-graders, sessions on addressing aspects to build confidence for sixth- and seventh-graders, and sessions on building healthy relationships and social media for eighth- and ninth-graders.

“We have an executive committee, and we thought these would be topics that would help the girls at those ages,” St. Marie said.

Expanding below fourth grade isn’t because it would require a different programming format; empowHER won’t be expanding past the ninth grade because girls in high school have more programs and options available to them, and the retreat could be a conflict with their already-established schedules.

 empowHERing the future

Although the basic blueprint behind empowHER is set, St. Marie noted that there are still openings for change. The executive committee holds its own retreat each year to lay the foundation for the coming year’s retreat.

For now, the program works because it lets girls advance through the sessions as they get older, allowing them to have a new empowHER experience each year – and, they do come back.

“Some girls have been for all three years,”St. Marie said. 

One potential change could be the implementation of a special gathering for empowHER alumnae, and St. Marie hinted that tickets to an MSU women’s basketball game could be a part of that event. She also noted that she would like to mine the Lansing area for resources, hopefully bringing in the expert

speakers and instructors from a local base.

Yet, as some things change, others stay the same. St. Marie noted that fundraising is and always will be key, and it will be vital to expanding the program locally or even to other communities.

“The bigger we get, the more money we need through grants and sponsorships,” St. Marie said.

Like the girls who attend, there will always be room for the empowHER to grow. More information can be found on the web at empowHERretreat.comor by emailing stmariek@broad.msu.edu.

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