By Samantha Bergeson
Freshman, Menlo School
On the surface, it looked like a group of typical teenage girls talking about the struggles of adolescence. Yet, the 73 girls who attended the one-day Girls Lead Now conference, held recently in Menlo Park, were far from average, taking advantage of leadership opportunities and attending crucial, yet fun, courses.
By attending the Saturday conference, held Feb. 20 at Mid-Peninsula High School, the young women demonstrated an interest in learning various life skills. Throughout the day, they partook of courses taught by other teenagers on such heavy-weight topics as preparing for college ("Ready … Set … College!") and taking control of their finances ("Power over Plastic").
Participants in the conference shared accounts of personal struggles, from problems in relationships to various addictions -- whether to substances or even technology. By doing so, they began to build a sense of community.
The Girls Lead Now organization was started in 2004 by 15-year-old Sarah Hedayati, then a student at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. It began as a small group, teaching girls about economics. It has expanded to large conferences, held annually in the Bay Area for the past five years.
The nonprofit organization's mission is to inspire young women to strive for independence and to achieve their potential as leaders, while learning business strategies and healthy ways to survive the pressures of teenage life.
This year's conference focused on the theme, "Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken." The primary sponsor was Spiral Muse, an online forum for budding female writers.
Keynote speaker was Helen Grieco, founder of the San Francisco-based SHE Academy, established for training women to be community activists and strong leaders.
Among "skillshop" courses taught by teenage teachers were public speaking, anti-anxiety methods, health, budgeting, and how to gain an internship or job.
Sruthi Ramaswami, a 15-year-old student at Archbishop Mitty who will be co-chair of the 2011 conference, taught the "Fearless Speaking: Taming the Butterflies" course after attending the event last year.
"I [too had a challenge speaking publicly, and it motivated me to do this workshop," she said.
Katherine Edgecumbe, a senior at Archbishop Mitty and a co-chair this year, also incorporated personal experiences, such as her struggle with anorexia, into her class. As the health and body image instructor, she led discussions about confidence and "traps of insecurity" as well as healthy dietary and fitness habits.
She also taught how to identify emotional and behavioral signs of people suffering from eating disorders, and how to supply support and help.
Portola Valley resident Taryn Lewis, a first-time participant and junior at Mid-Peninsula High School, said after attending the budgeting course: "I love the [overall experience. I know it sounds cheesy, but it is really an empowering experience … as it helps us deal with the reality that is actually out there."
The day concluded with a clothing exchange. Leftover items were donated to a girl's shelter in East Palo Alto.
Visit girlsleadnow.org for more information.
The author of this story, Samantha Bergeson, is a resident of Portola Valley and a freshman at Menlo School in Atherton.