On Saturday, October 3, 2015, the cafeteria of Charles Herbert Flowers High School located in Springdale, Maryland, was transformed into a no judgment safe zone for teen and “tween” girls ages 12-18. Emily Wilson, the project manager of a Maryland-based nonprofit organization called the Institute for Creative Community Initiatives (ICCI)— welcomed attendees to a free youth symposium called “Girl Code.” ICCI prepares young people to build and sustain bright futures through offering learning experiences that focus on academic success, workforce development, life skills and health and wellness.
At the second-annual event, girls engaged in empowering games. Conversations about challenges during adolescence filled the air. Girls openly explored topics with their peers during sessions. With Wilson’s guidance, they engaged in discussions that were generated by topics like positive and negative images of women in the media. Participants also heard from speakers without the presence of their parents who may have caused them to censor their words.
Jean Drummond is the president of both ICCI and HealthCare Dynamics International (HCDI), which is an award-winning health care management and technology consulting firm. Giving back through ICCI is important to the entrepreneur.
“We’re just excited about the Institute for Creative Community Initiatives, because it is so important, I think, for us to give back,” Drummond said as the deejay played music. “Certainly, I think [it important]as we move forward in our professional careers and our business success that we give back.”
Drummond employs young adults. The youth coordination team that planned this year’s “Girl Code” symposium along with Wilson was comprised of Marianne Orunja and Jacquelyn Chin. Chin, 18, is a freshman psychology major at Howard University. She enjoys working with ICCI to promote positive messages for girls and is able to provide insight about college life. Orunja, 19, studies accounting at Towson University.
“We just wanted to appeal to them (“Girl Code” participants) as much as we could and make it fun as well…,” Orunja said. “I feel like this event is very helpful to girls in regards to self-esteem…, getting to know yourself and… growing up, because I’ve actually gone through a lot of teasing and backlash growing up, and I didn’t really have events like this to go to to encourage me.”
“Girl Code” participants listened to Kanika Tolver tell her story about finding herself as an adult. The author, speaker and life coach reminded girls to prepare for success by working on themselves. She also answered questions about a variety of topics, including career selection and overcoming internal obstacles.
“I want you guys to deal with your issues now,” Tolver said.
Rashema Melson was the second guest speaker. She provided a moving account of her previous life as a homeless teen who lived at D.C. General Homeless Shelter with her mother and two of her siblings. Melson’s father was killed when she was a baby. Despite encountering obstacles, Melson concluded that participating in school activities and getting good grades could help position her to pursue scholarships.
“I was the captain of three sports in high school, and I was in a couple of programs. I was president of the book club and my goal was do whatever you can to get a scholarship because I can’t afford college. My mom can’t afford a house. I can’t afford college. We’re broke,” Melson said upon reflection after speaking.
Melson became Anacostia High School’s valedictorian in 2014 and earned a full scholarship to Georgetown University. Now a sophomore, the humble college student says that God pushed her to love herself. Melson’s positive attitude and work ethic sent a powerful message to “Girl Code” participants.
“I had a great time here talking with the girls. I really connected with them. If I had to I would do it all over again,” Melson said. “I went through a lot of self-battles dealing with family, dealing with the world, dealing with homelessness, but the thing about that is I never let that define me. I stayed focus and I kept my eye on the goal and worked hard. If you do those things, you will get to where you want to be. That’s what it’s all about.”