By Sydney Hakes
SUNY Plattsburgh’s girl’s empowerment organization, Shine On!, held its 14th annual conference, titled Mighty Girls Move Mountains: Explore Your Character Compass, this past weekend. It was the first in-person conference since COVID-19 began.
The survival-themed conference stemmed from the new location at Camp Pok-O-MacCready in Willsboro. This was the first in-person conference outside of campus, where it was previously held in Memorial Hall.
In order to keep students, mentors and the committee safe, everyone participating in the conference was required to be fully vaccinated and submit a rapid test prior to entering the conference. Students were eating together in a dining hall and sleeping in cabins together, and the extra layer of protection for students to focus on the workshops.
Those activities included rock wall climbing, a low ropes course and fire building. Volunteer expeditionary students led two of the six workshops, teaching the girls about “leave no trace,” fire building, using a compass, and botany. These workshops’ underlying message comes from Shine On!’s seven character strengths: grit, optimism, zest, social intelligence, curiosity, self control and gratitude.
Shine On! chairperson Emily Slattery said that while a new location brought on new challenges — having to cut the usual attendance from 200 girls to 80, testing for COVID, weather concerns — it also brought new opportunities.
“We could take all those tangible outdoor skills they were learning and give them a symbolic message,” Slattery said. “Climbing a rock wall can be scary, but you are capable of figuring it out. That was sort of a mantra of the weekend: you can do hard things.”
Kayla Vinci and Izzy Kocienda were two mentors of 20 at the conference. They stayed in the cabins with the girls and helped presenters at various workshops and activities. Workshops focused on Shine On!’s three themes: media and marketing literacy, communication skills and character strengths. The workshops ranged from knowing the difference between what’s fake and real on social media, how to deal with bullying and money management.
“We would read out scenarios and ask the girls how they would react to whatever the situation was,” Kocienda said about the Situation Navigation workshop. “They’re at this age where they’re authentically themselves. That will likely change when they get older and enter middle school. We want to give them the tools to be prepared for situations they might face while also learning that it’s OK to be themselves. That is as much of a life skill as being able to start a fire.”
Vinci also brought up the importance of targeting elementary age girls, who are developing their personalities and their relationships with one another.
“Young girls can be mean to one another, on top of that, they’re growing up in an era of social media,” Vinci said. “What they might see on Instagram can lead to lowered self-esteem and confidence. We want to help build them up and prepare to navigate it.”
Shine On! focuses on third to fifth grade girls through their conferences and workshops. Committee member Taylor Edgar shared the mission and the goals of Shine On!
“We’re college women who want to help raise confident young girls,” Edgar said. “We want to be a type of early intervention for any type of negative situation they may face. We focus on life skills, communication skills and media strengths, which are things that have changed so rapidly since I was their age.”
Besides the annual conference, there is a big focus on their Education Outreach program. Educators, like Edgar, go into local schools for an hour every week to spread their mission. They also work with young boys through the Education Outreach program.
Shine On! reaches out to schools directly if teachers want to request a mentor from the Education Outreach to come into their classroom. They also spread information about the conferences through outreach. More information can be found on their website, shineongirl.org.
All services provided by Shine On! are free. They operate on sponsors and grants.
Slattery hopes to see Shine On! grow beyond the North Country. Syracuse University has expressed interest in Shine On! after many New York schools worked with the organization at a conference where they talked to astronauts from the International Space Station in spring 2021 for the virtual Look to the Stars conference, which hosted over 6,000 students across New York States on Zoom.
“We reached out to a bunch of colleges to be a part of the event, and it was extremely successful,” Slattery said. “There is a demand for what we do, and as long as we keep reaching out, whether it be through our Educational Outreach or Shine On! In-A-Box, young girls throughout the North Country and beyond can benefit.”
There will be an informational meeting Sunday, May 8 at 6 p.m. by Hawkins Pond. They’re looking for more Education Outreach mentors, but encourage anyone interested to stop by and learn about Shine On!