Things that happen by chance sometimes have a big impact. Eight months ago I picked up the Union-Tribune and read an article that moved me to get my scissors, cut it out, find a website, and send an email. The funny thing is, I’m not a regular reader of the paper, so reading this particular article was chance. But it moved me so much that I vowed to learn more about an organization that was also born out of a chance occurrence.
Thirteen years ago a young woman named Jenna Druck was overseas with a friend. They were on a bus and Jenna noticed a girl crying in the back so she left her seat and went to comfort the girl. When the bus crashed, Jenna’s friend survived but because Jenna had left her seat to help the girl, Jenna died.
The article didn’t tell the story of Jenna’s bus crash. I heard that story from Jenna’s dad, Dr. Druck (“call me Ken”). The article chronicled the first annual conference given for pre-teen girls, sponsored by the Jenna Druck Foundation. The foundation was started to honor Jenna Druck, to bring her gusto to countless girls, to help transform their lives. I clipped that article, knowing that I wanted to participate. About a month ago I attended an evening information session about the foundation and the conference. I rarely do things at night because I’m so worn out after taking care of my 2- and 5-year old. But I made a point to go to that meeting. The foundation seemed like a great match for what I’d been looking for: an opportunity to give back. A chance to bolster the sometimes fragile self-esteem of young women. A way to help others find happiness without having to take all the paths I tried before finding it inside.
On Saturday, March 21, I volunteered at the twelfth annual Spirit of Leadership Conference for teen-aged girls. That morning I woke in the dark, even before my 5:45am alarm could ring. I was ready for this day.
Three hundred girls were registered to attend the Spirit of Leadership Conference at Marina Village. Adults had nominated them as girls with leadership potential, girls who would flourish with some nurturing and the right mix of challenge and self-acceptance. We arrived at seven and began setting up in the cold gray air. By 8 am I was tucked behind a registration table as the girls began to arrive, walking through an arch of balloons, down a red carpet, and into the meeting hall. There were girls of every race, size and style, and I only mention the physical because it was refreshing and exciting to see the variety in the girls. This was not a day intended to be about looks. This day could be an escape from the daily pressure to look a certain way, a reprieve from being aware of what boys think. The program’s goal is to develop girls’ minds and talents. This day was about being who you are and saying what you think. A family had come all the way from Palm Springs to bring their daughter. One volunteer drove from her college a hundred miles away to give back to the program she attended four years ago.
The girls gathered at tables for ten. At each table sat a mentor, a woman who had applied to share her story with the girls over lunch. The day began with a welcome, and a Keynote Speaker, Maria Reyes, from Freedom Writers. She told her own story of being a 3rd generation gang member, of teachers who told her she would never amount to anything. But there was one teacher who would not give up on her, even though Maria did not yet trust the teacher’s kindness. The story was about the difference one person can make in the life of a young person who doesn’t have enough support or resources, who does not believe in herself. A group of volunteers clustered around the door to the meeting hall, listening to her speak, holding our breath. When it was time for our next assignment we didn’t want to leave the doorway. We wanted to hear more. Her story was so compelling, her voice so passionate, almost yelling at times, then easing the mood with a humorous note. It’s amazing when one woman’s story touches everyone in the room, despite age, racial, and economic differences. But it did. That’s what the conference was about: finding common threads among us all, messages that speak to each of us.
After the morning session the girls attended two one-hour Break-Out Sessions. These were group workshops facilitated by life coaches, authors, business women, professional speakers and counselors: women who have a message about self-confidence and success for girls.
At lunch time the sun finally broke through the clouds as the girls helped themselves to a buffet from Souplantation. They ate at the tables, talking with their mentors and one another. I heard a lot of laughter and saw a lot of smiles. One volunteer suggested that the girls clear their own lunch plates, but the day was about honoring the girls and the plan was that we would clear the tables so they could continue listening to the speaker. They were appreciative and had excellent manners. I didn’t mind taking their plates. Ken helped, too. He is all about celebrating girls.
In the afternoon Tami Walsh spoke to the girls. She is a San Diego-based life coach for teen girls, and she was terrific. She is energetic, funny and youthful, the perfect bridge between teens who can’t relate to their parents, and concerned parents who can’t reach their kids. After an ice-breaker game, some of the girls stood to tell everyone funny or inspiring things they had learned about others at their table. One girl said her mentor inspired her because she was undaunted by those who told her she would not make it. She took many odd jobs to make finance her college education (including “scraping possum fat. Gross!”).
There was afternoon entertainment provided by a local Stomp-style band of young men making music with trash cans. The girls danced and let loose for a while before an afternoon session with Tami and Leanne Tibiatowski, from the foundation, and a message from Ken Druck.
I was there to support young women, but I received something immeasurable, too. Seeing the openness in these girls’ faces brings me back to my high school years. I still think and even dream about high school, sifting through my memories, trying to make peace with the ones that still hold pain. Being around teen-aged girls seems to be a piece of my own healing and growth. As Ken wrote in an open letter to the girls attending the conference, it will take a while for the conference’s messages to sink in and take root. The same applies to those of us who volunteered. Just because we’ve graduated from our teen years does not mean that we have it all figured out. Although I was there to help the girls, participating in a program like this teaches and nurtures me, too.
Back at home that night, I told the hubby about the day, sharing funny stories and meaningful messages. I was very tired, but so glad I’d participated. The next day my feet hurt and I was uncharacteristically sluggish. Outside, rain came down. What luck, I thought. The rain did not come during the conference, which was both indoors and outdoors. Ken writes in the conference’s program that “this day is designed to ignite your spirit, shape your dreams, bring out the highest and best in you and connect you to an amazing group of young women from all over San Diego County.” It did that, and more. So far, the Jenna Druck Foundation’s Young Women’s Leadership Program has helped more than ten thousand young women and girls to see their own possibilities. You GO, girls!