“I carry myself much stronger as a woman than I did before. … I don’t know where I would be without the programs at the girls’ centre.”

Summer started attending girls’ programs funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation when she was nine — and just kept going back. At 19, she works as a counsellor for girls’ summer camps at YWCA Toronto, where she’s helping girls to connect with Indigenous culture and history.

I WAS SHY GROWING UP, and didn’t like to talk unless someone made me. But the girls’ programs at the YWCA taught me that my voice and my opinion mattered.

I was nine when my mom signed me up and I think initially, I would have preferred to go home. But after the first day, I really liked it: the people were kind … and there was food. I recognized one of the staff members as one of my former teachers from school. In the girls’ program, I got to call her by her first name instead of “Miss”.

Over the years, we learned about issues like how to stay safe online, how to defend ourselves, and about sexual health. We could discuss awkward topics because it was a safe space, there was no judgment, and we were always reminded about confidentiality. Girls came from all over the community, so I made new friends outside school. It helped me realize how diverse our area is — in a good way.

We also discussed stereotypes, and I hadn’t realized that there were so many labels and misconceptions. For example, when I was younger, I didn’t really understand what feminist meant, but I knew some people saw it as negative. Now, after all the time I’ve spent in the programs, I know that being a feminist is positive and empowering.

I carry myself a lot stronger as a woman than I did before. We talked a lot about self-esteem over the years, and I think that was really important, especially at such a delicate age. Young girls take in a lot from the media — and it wasn’t as bad then as it is now. I think social media is encouraging girls to grow up so quickly, and to feel they have to post themselves looking a certain way. But, in reality, you’re only a kid for so long.

Over the years, I got to have a mentor and it was great to have that insight and support from a girl who was just a bit older than me. Then I became a mentor myself, and it was really rewarding to be that big sister to someone else.

Now that I’m 19, I’m in a graphic design program and I work as a counsellor in the YWCA girls’ summer camp. I’m working to connect the girls with Indigenous activities like making dream catchers and hand drumming. I’m an Anishnawbe Kwe, and I want girls know there’s so much more to this culture and history than what they’re learning at school. It’s been great to see that they’re eager to learn.

I know that I want to integrate my graphic design skills into working with Indigenous girls in the future. After all the time I’ve been here, learning these skills and connecting with people, hopefully I’ll get there. I don’t know where I would be without the programs at the girls’ centre.

The Safe Sisters and the Miss Media programs that Summer attended received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and were delivered by the YWCA Toronto Girls’ Centre.

Image: Stock