Every Thursday after school, a group of nine girls meets in a corner classroom at Johnson Middle School. Each has a different background. Some are outgoing and expressive; others are meek and quiet. Some are scholarly; some are athletic. They come from different economic backgrounds and cultures.

“But when they all get together, nothing else matters,” says the group’s sponsor, Ashlee Smith, who teaches science inclusion at Johnson. “When we’re here, the one purpose is to grow and to learn. When they are here, they are part of the group.”

The nine are members of GIRLS, which stands for Growing Intelligent, Respectful Leaders toward Success. A grassroots effort started by Smith in 2017, this girl empowerment group focuses on providing a safe space for female students in a notoriously challenging phase of life.

“They needed a group on campus where they felt safe enough to talk about the challenges of middle school and being a female in society,” says Smith. 

Activities and lessons vary when the girls meet each week. Sometimes there are team-building activities such as painting with a twist for a therapeutic release and a locked-hands exercise to teach communication skills. Other times, it’s a selected topic of conversation.

“That’s my favorite part of GIRLS group – the conversations,” says eighth grader Sami Adetunji. “They are interesting, and sometimes they can be simple, but they have a lot of meaning behind them.”

The group also steps outside of their after-school meeting space for even greater lessons.

“We went to Olive Garden, and we learned about etiquette and budgeting and the importance of being able to speak for yourself and advocate for yourself – knowing how to order their food, etc.,” says Smith. “We are teaching them little life lessons.”

Perhaps the greatest lessons of all are the ones garnered through the group’s service projects, like assembling food bags and reading to kindergarteners at Irving ISD’s Davis Elementary School. Two months ago, GIRLS group also organized a Heart for the Homeless drive to collect non-perishable items. The group also takes care of maintaining the streets in front of and behind the school litter-free through the city of Irving’s Adopt-A-Spot program.

“When we do volunteer work, I want them to know the importance of going out in the community and giving back,” says Smith. “To me, it teaches them that it doesn’t matter how much you have or what you have or what your ability is, you can give back. Giving back is free.”

And while volunteering may be free, it is also rewarding. 

“My favorite thing about GIRLS group is definitely our service projects because I get to help out my community, and it just feels good after,” says eighth grader Brianna Puckett. 

The group also serves as holistic accountability. While there are grade checks, there are also emotional and social metrics. 

“This group keeps you in check with your grades,” says Adetunji. “I have a high GPA, but Ms. Smith checks your grades and makes sures you’re educationally in check, as well as socially and emotionally, to make sure we’re well-rounded. It’s all important, and all of the different aspects of GIRLS group give me more confidence.”

“I’ve learned what it’s like to have a community that supports you no matter what,” adds Puckett.

For Smith and co-sponsor Alyssa Wilken, who teaches GT humanities at Johnson, that’s what GIRLS group is all about.

“I hope that they are able to be leaders in their community,” says Smith. “I want them to go out and be the best “them” that they can be. I want them to go beyond what and who they thought that they could be. And I want this group to give them the encouragement to do so.”

Based on the lessons garnered from some of the participants, it’s safe to say the group has met the mark. 

“We are growing up in a society where sometimes women aren’t accepted just because we are a different gender,” says Puckett. “This group is teaching us that we are important, and we can make a giant impact no matter what.”