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How This Chicago Organization Is Using Sports To Empower Young Girls

Girls in the Game is improving the lives of those who might otherwise get left behind.

Growing up in Chicago, Lucy Mucino did well in school and played rugby at her high school, Rauner College Prep, but there was something missing. “I grew up in a not so well-rounded household,” Mucino says. And even school didn’t feel like the most positive environment. But that changed when her high school guidance counselor suggested she speak with two individuals from an organization called Girls in the Game. Mucino knew nothing about the group but took the meeting anyway.

When she arrived, a woman aptly named Coach Margaret told Mucino that their organization provided sports and leadership activities to girls throughout Chicago and that Mucino could help out by running workshops for younger children as a counselor. Mucino, an athlete herself, liked the idea of helping other girls through sports, and when she found out the organization also offered scholarship opportunities, she applied right away and eventually joined the Teen Squad program. Years later, she’s still contributing to the group that’s done so much for her.

“Girls in the Game helped mold me into the person I am today. They have given me my voice, my strength, and my confidence all through having fun and being active,” Mucino says. “I know Girls in the Game does change girls’ lives because it has changed mine.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I never saw myself as a leader before Girls in the Game.[/quote]

Girls in the Game is a nonprofit organization based primarily in Chicago that provides after-school and summer programs to girls between ages 7 and 18. It uses sports and workshops to encourage physical and emotional health in girls growing up in high-risk communities. Partnering with 40 schools around Chicago, in addition to budding efforts in Baltimore and Dallas, Girls in the Game mentored 3,800 girls in 2016.

In Chicago, its after-school programs are separated into three-week rotations where the girls participate in athletic activities while also learning important life skills. One rotation might be basketball, smart eating, and healthy relationships, then the next one might be yoga, personal hygiene, and diversity. The life lessons aren’t just boring lectures. For smart eating, the coaches arrange food-group relay races so the girls can stay active and have fun while learning.

For members of Teen Squad, Girls in the Game puts counselors like Mucino through a training workshop that teaches them the curriculum and mentorship skills so they can effectively lead younger kids through the program. So not only does this program have the benefits of younger kids learning important life lessons from their peers, the older girls get valuable leadership training and experience.

Coaches are assigned to all Girls in the Game after-school locations, but Mucino says they mostly supervise and oversee the activities and give the Teen Squad members independence to teach their own way. Mucino says this was important because it forced her be more authoritative and learn how to be a better coach and teacher.

“I never saw myself as a leader before Girls in the Game,” Mucino says. “I learned new ways to communicate with others. I learned what I am comfortable doing, what I am not comfortable doing.”

The organization also facilitates Leader-to-Leader interviews where Teen Squad members visit workplaces throughout Chicago to meet successful women across multiple industries.

“Most of the girls are familiar with the careers you’d expect them to be familiar with, like doctor, lawyer, or teacher,” says Meghan Morgan, Girls in the Game’s executive director. “But we’re able to take them to places where they learn what it’s like to be a female in engineering or work for a professional sports team as a non-athlete. This way they can start looking at their own future and thinking about what they want to be when they grow up.”

Mucino points to the Leader-to-Leader interviews as a highlight of her Teen Squad experience. She and the other girls would meet with one woman in business or a whole panel of professionals. Then they’d have the opportunity to tour their workplaces to make the careers the girls may strive for more tangible.

One interview in particular really stuck with Mucino. The Teen Squad members travelled to Chicago’s historic Willis Tower and went to one of the higher floors. There was a whole group of professional women for them to meet, but Mucino entered into a deep conversation with a professor from Columbia College, a liberal arts school in downtown Chicago. Mucino had taken summer classes there before, so she was drawn to the woman. The professor talked about how she previously worked as a schoolteacher and some of the reasons she chose her profession. Mucino said it deeply resonated with her.

“It was nice to get all these different point-of-views from women with very different jobs,” Mucino says. “I never even thought of experiencing something like that. Those interviews really guided me to figuring out what I want to do.”

The organization’s effect on Mucino isn’t an outlier. For more than a decade, Girls in the Game has teamed up with the department of psychology at Loyola University to determine the effectiveness of their programs. According to the findings from Loyola, 76% of those who participated in Girls in the Game showed an increase in grit (a measurement of perseverance and determination), 88% were more likely to use nonviolent strategies during conflicts, 91% had an improved body image, and 68% showed improved self-worth. Girls in the Game says these results “demonstrate that girls participating in our programming can experience immediate benefit to psychological and physical well-being.”

“Year after year, the results show that the girls in our program eat healthier, learn more about nutrition, feel better about themselves, and are more active after going through our program than they were before,” Morgan says. “We think that’s a product of the safe space we’re providing for the girls. We’re thrilled with the results.”

Amy Bohnert, an associate professor in clinical psychology at Loyola University who has studied Girls in the Game for more than 10 years, also points to the positive and nurturing environment of the organization as a major reason for these results.

“These girls get exposure to an environment that is very supportive and nurturing, and that allows them to explore and try new things,” Bohnert says. “I think the coaches are very positive role models and empower the girls to embrace new ideas. That really has an impact on the girls’ lives.”

Mucino said that Girls in the Game’s positive environment had a great effect on her. Something as easy as a greeting from the coaches encouraged her and made her more invested in the program.

“It was nice to have coaches ask me, ‘How are you doing? How’s your day going?’” Mucino says. “I loved being in that positive environment. That’s what I tried to give the girls I led during Teen Squad: A nice, open environment to find themselves.”

After participating in Teen Squad, Mucino realized she wanted to become a coach. She recently finished her sophomore year at North Park University in Chicago, where she’s studying for a degree in physical education. Last summer, she began working for Girls in the Game through the AmeriCorps’ Coach Across America program. Not only did the organization teach her about leadership and confidence, it gave her a path in life.

“Part of the Girls in the Game mission is to focus on the whole girl,” Mucino says. “That’s what they did for me. I carry that mission statement with me when I’m coaching. We’re not just focusing on teaching a sport or fitness, we’re also teaching about communicating and sportsmanship. It’s not just about sports, it’s about much more than that.”

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