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Girls Clubs Still Point the Way : They Have Been Shaping Young Lives for 40 Years

June 16, 1986|KAREN KENYON

CHULA VISTA — It doesn't matter where a girl comes from, as long as she knows where she's going.

--Motto of Girls Clubs of America

It's a typical afternoon at the Chula Vista Girls Club, nestled in a frame house between Rice Elementary School and the Church of the Nazarene on L Street.

Two dozen girls are engaged in various activities inside. Others are on the school playground, being supervised by a club staff member. Others are playing soccer in the recently built gym on the site of a Boys' Club and Girls Club on Oleander Avenue in Chula Vista that will be finished in July, 1987.

Inside the L Street house, two girls work on computers as others watch. Nearby are a piano and shelves of books.

Still more girls are exercising to the tune of "Stayin' Alive." Fifty girls may visit the club each day. Next door to the exercise class is the preschool room, full of bins neatly filled with blankets and clothes waiting for next morning's charges. Posters decorate the walls--from Kermit the Frog to ones advising "A Creative Mess Is Better Than Tidy Idleness," and "May I Help? Be Thoughtful."

It has been more than 40 years since Girls Clubs of America began quietly and steadily improving the quality of life for girls. But the idea took hold unofficially in Waterbury, Conn., in 1864, during the Industrial Revolution. Rural young women who came to town to work in textile mills needed a safe place to meet and find companionship--so they met together and later included their daughters.

Today, the emphasis for Girls Clubs is on helping girls overcome discrimination and become economically independent women.

There are 240 Girls Clubs of America nationwide with a membership of 250,000 girls from ages 6 to 18.

The Girls Clubs of America National Resource Center in Indianapolis is the nation's largest repository for data and studies on girls and girl-related trends.

Girls Help Themselves

"We are helping girls to help themselves," said Marie Miehls, executive director of the Chula Vista club. "Girls think someone will take care of them.

"Girls Clubs differ from Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls in that we meet daily," she said. "Most girls who come here (82%) are from single-parent or working-family homes and would be alone in the afternoon if they didn't come to the club each day."

Miehls came to the club 13 years ago as a single mother of four and a former teacher, to work part-time.

"When I came here, there was only one other employee," she said. "I remember coming here and painting this building."

Now Miehls, who has just finished a stint on the National Board of Girls Clubs of America, says: "The experience here has taught me a lot. I was only going to stay one to two years, but it is a challenge--teaching, fund-raising, knowing the community. It's rewarding. You see kids feel good about this club, and parents come in and feel relieved. You can't do all things for all people, but you can meet basic needs."

Filling some of the basic needs of the girls includes helping them develop self-esteem, career awareness, good health and nutrition habits and math and science skills. In addition, there are efforts to help girls avoid becoming victims of child abuse or teen-age pregnancy.

The Girls Club of Chula Vista was organized in 1964. It has four full-time staff members, three part-timers, a secretary and several volunteers, Miehls said. Other San Diego County clubs are in San Diego on South 30th Street, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista, National City and El Cajon. Each club has programs to suit its community.

The San Diego Girls Club, the largest in the area with 1,325 members (110 daily during school and 200 in the summer), "is mostly minority," Director Etta Keeler said.

The gymnastics program is popular there.

"We're lucky to have a former Olympian to teach gym," Keeler said. "This Girls Club has a strong emphasis on creative and performing arts as well," she added.

The Carlsbad Girls Club is small, with 35 girls a day, but offers career exposure, recreation activities, and even has a "clownology" troupe. For a community service project this year, the club is painting litter barrels at Buena Vista Lagoon.

The Oceanside club averages 22 girls a day during the school year, 30 in the summer. The Vista club has about 60 girls daily and offers 35 classes a week, including gardening and cooking, according to director Vickie McDonald.

National City's club has up to 50 girls attending each day, director Sheryl Hulsey said. The National City club is predominantly Latino, with a racially balanced staff, and has offered multicultural programs and films, Hulsey noted. The focus this year is on behavior guidance to help girls with emotional problems. "We have a lot of shy girls," Hulsey said. "We often target certain girls and give them extra attention. We try to help them make friends. We also have a few sexually abused girls we work with."

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