HARTLAND — The group of sixth grade girls gathered at St. Charles, Hartland, on Nov. 4 looked like any other class you would find at the Catholic grade school. However, instead of learning reading, writing and arithmetic, these young girls were participating in the Girl Genius Retreat to help them understand their nature, dignity and special role as women in society.
Created by the organization ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women), established in the Archdiocese of Denver, “Girl Genius” is a day-long program for girls ages 10- 13 that, besides relaying Scripture and catechesis in the lessons, incorporates group activities, “girl-time reflections,” and journaling sessions that focus on issues affecting middle school girls, e.g., confronting culture and the media, and self-esteem issues. Each lesson highlights a young female saint who lived a life of holiness, despite the pressures and temptations of the world around her.
The program was offered to the sixth to eighth grade girls from St. Charles, Hartland; St. Jerome, Oconomowoc; Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, North Lake; and St. Joan of Arc, Delafield. The seventh and eighth grade girls were combined for one day, with the sixth grade girls following the next. During the sessions for the girls, boys in the same grades participated in a day of community service, serving lunch at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee and assisting area residents in yard work.
St. Charles principal Michael Halstead learned of the Girl Genius program after his wife read about it in the Wauwatosa newspaper in April. After investigating the organization, he knew it was a program he wanted to pursue for the girls in his school.
“I have a daughter, and I think the whole concept of defining who you are in the midst of a world that tries to define you for yourself is very, very important,” he said. “To give girls such confidence and the whole aspect of learning what the truth is about who they are, and how do you live by your faith in a secular world.…”
Mission is to educate women, girls
The day included presentations, small group discussions, art projects and skits put on by the participating girls to illustrate what they learned. The program has the power to open eyes, according to facilitator Brigid Sweeney and marketing coordinator with ENDOW for four years. She also oversees the youth program, which involves traveling to various schools across the United States.
“Our mission is to educate women and girls for a more profound understanding of their God-given dignity, and not just that, but their role in humanizing and transforming the face of our culture,” she explained.
Pope spoke of genius of women
According to Sweeney, those who participate in the Girl Genius program leave with a greater understanding of God and self, which was what Pope John Paul II had in mind when he spoke of the genius of women in his 1995 “Letter to Women.”
“Every single girl – no matter where I go, state or city – the exact same thing: you can just see it in their eyes,” she recalled. “They kind of light up and they start to recognize. The message resonates with their hearts because it’s the truth, the foundations of the truth. Every human being, this dignity, truth, goodness, love; it resonates with us.
“What I’ve noticed is that – and I only usually present at Catholic schools – these girls have heard this message from their teachers, they’ve heard this message from their parents, but it’s like you can never hear it enough. When that is what they’re facing – that lie – over and over again, you can’t beat it out enough to say, ‘Hey, your value is so much deeper than the shape of your legs or the size of your waist.’”
Discover true measure of worthiness
That “lie” to which Sweeney referred was a collage of images hanging on the wall of St. Charles taken from popular women’s lifestyle magazines – Glamour, InStyle, Cosmopolitan – that constantly remind women and young girls that the skinnier they are, the more makeup they wear and the sexier they dress increases their measure of worthiness in this secular world.
“All of it – the backdrop – is that they were loved into existence by God,” Sweeney said about the heart of the program. “That’s huge, I think, for women and girls to really be convinced of that … when you’re convinced of that, the confidence you have is authentic, it gets deep, it’s real, and it’s not going to change with some passing fad or the new mascara that comes along.”
Heather Frommell, a teacher at St. Charles, helped facilitate for the day by keeping the conversation flowing during small group discussions.
“I think it’s great and I think the girls are having a blast,” she said about the program. “I’m really understanding what media is trying to tell them versus what they should already know about God, and how he loves them as they are, not as how everyone else wants to see them.”
Lessons emphasize human dignity
Toward the end of the day, the girls were asked to choose one word that best described them, and then write what they believe they can use their “Girl Genius” for. “Humor,” “creativity,” and “curious” were some of the words that filled their posters.
For sixth grader Greta Schermitzler from St. Joan of Arc School, many of the day’s lessons resonated with her.
“I think that the most important thing I learned is about human dignity and how we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to people in magazines and things like that,” she explained. “It’s better that I know that I shouldn’t act like that.”
“I thought it was surprising because there (are) so many negative things about famous people and stuff,” said student Claire Meindel, also from St. Joan of Arc. “They wear too much makeup and that they make themselves look like what people think they should look like, like fans don’t know what they actually look like. It kind of made me look at other people different because you can’t tell if people are wearing makeup sometimes, but you can tell if they are.”
St. Charles student Milena Luksich enjoyed learning about how the media portrays women.
“I thought it was really cool that I learned today how much we really didn’t understand about human dignity, and … all the lies we’ve been hearing,” she said. “My favorite was making the magazine (collage).”