Why Invest In Girls?

Growing up, I thought I understood the meaning of the phrase “girl power.” We hear it all the time; be strong, be confident, stand up for yourself, do whatever you set your mind to.

Although this all still rings true, my understanding of “girl power” has changed over time. As I grew up a little, developed my own opinions, beliefs, and values, I began to encounter some experiences that allowed me to truly understand what it means to be a girl.

From the Very Beginning…

There is no denying that women have faced many challenges over the course of history, and for minority women, these challenges are even greater. From the battle for women’s suffrage in 1919 to the fight for paid maternity leave (and more) today, there have been many big steps taken, but there are still many huge steps to go, regardless of political stance. I think fighting for human rights and opportunities is something we can all get behind.

Rewind to 2014, when I first got involved in the Miss America Organization. This new experience required me to study social issues and public policy to prepare for my pageant interviews and onstage questions. To expand my knowledge, I started following news sources, public figures, and political leaders. I started to develop an interest in the important issues and make connections regarding how these issues affect me, my friends, family, other young women, and even strangers. We are ALL affected by what happens around us, even if they may seem like the smallest matters in our personal lives.

I learned that there are so many people worldwide without access to basic needs, like food, water, shelter, or healthcare. These people may even be our neighbors. Additionally, there are some people around the world (by some, I mean MILLIONS) who long for education or safety in their own communities. Many of these people are girls and women.

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I know what you may be thinking, “What about boys and men?” Of course boys and men are also crucial parts of our society! I’ll always be an advocate for the success of both men and women. Both populations contribute highly to our communities. However, for my mission specifically, I wanted to target young girls and women because I recognize a need for programs for girls to be involved in, from a local to global level.

Starting a Brainstorm…

From here, the Miss America Organization encouraged me to form an opinion on EVERYTHING, which motivated me to start conversations and apply things that I enjoy toward making a difference. I’ve always enjoyed lifting up other girls and women, encouraging them to believe in their dreams and shoot for the stars and beyond. However, I wanted to do more. How could I make a change with this passion of mine?

One day, I was working on expanding my Miss America Organization platform (a pageant “platform” is an issue or cause I am passionate about and wish to promote as a contestant). I simply Googled, “ways to help girls around the world” and “nonprofit organizations for girls.” This is when I discovered Girl Up, a movement created by the United Nations Foundation, which aims to empower girls to advocate for the safety, health, and education of other girls worldwide, specifically in developing nations. I fell in love with this mission and became a community advocate for Girl Up.

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Photo from: GirlUp.org

“When girls are empowered, it benefits all of us. Investing in girls is key to reducing poverty: Girls who receive an education marry later, have fewer children, and are more likely to get healthcare for themselves and their children. Every year of schooling increases a girl’s future earnings by 10-20%.” –Girl Up (HIGHLY encourage everyone to check out this link and this campaign)

During the course of the next few years, I also took on a few new jobs and internships, earned a local MAO title, met many influential community members, made friends, lost friends, and gained a new understanding of who I am and what I want to be.

This is when I decided that, although empowering girls worldwide is something I am so passionate about, I want direct my focus a little closer to home. I started blogging here and there (writing has always been another fun hobby of mine) and I began to really think about ways to make an impact and how I can use my voice.

This is when I published To Today’s 14 Year-Old Girls, a message from myself to a younger population of girls. Never in a million years did I anticipate this article reaching so many people and generating as much feedback as it did. I got messages from girls, parents, community members, and leaders, racking up over 800,000 views. I knew, at this point, that I was capable of using my voice to make changes.

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This time in my life between 2014 and 2017 is when I began to discover what I’m meant to do and who I was made to become. When I was young, being a girl meant following the rules, fitting into a mold made by society, growing up to be a wife and mother…the usual. Today, being a girl and WOMAN means I have the voice to speak and the power to act. I get to choose my own destiny, and it’s okay if it’s not the norm. I’ve developed the confidence to form my own opinions and beliefs, and I firmly believe that every girl is capable of that as well.

Taking Action…

In this day and age, nobody is afraid to share those opinions and beliefs. However, how often do we see people physically standing up for what they believe in? ACTING on their opinions and beliefs? Going out and MAKING THE CHANGE they so openly spew about on social media? Hardly.

People, young and old, continue to want change to happen, but instead of stepping up, they are guarded by lack of motivation, confidence, leadership skills, or knowledge on where to begin. The reasons are endless.

This is where I wanted to step in.

We NEED more people to use their passions and interests to make positive changes, starting right here at home. I found that my passion lies in empowering girls, so I decided to make my mark that way. This is when GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve was born.

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A group of Girl Scouts participating in a GEMS workshop with me.

Rooted in the importance of service and community involvement, GEMS is a program I wanted to develop (with generous assistance from some wonderful, motivated women in my life). GEMS offers workshops for girls to learn about motivation, confidence, and empowerment. The program allows them to discover their true purpose and take on a service project of their own, depending on their own unique passions and talents.

By creating a positive, safe environment for girls, I’ve found that they feel more comfortable being open about their passions and dreams, as well as their insecurities and concerns. It’s crucial to provide a space for girls, young and old, to connect, learn, and flourish.

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Crafting at a GEMS workshop

GEMS is just getting started, but this has been my way of putting my own skills, passions, and motivation to positive use. GEMS is just a stepping stone toward a future of strong, empowered girls who aim to be the next generation of leaders. By understanding my voice and the impact I can make, I chose to fuel my fire by researching ways I can make my mark and creating a community of people who are just as motivated as I am. It only takes one spark to start a wildfire.

It’s Your Turn…

I invest in girls because I believe girls are the future. We need more girls taking on leadership roles and influencing communities, government, and beyond. Growing up, I thought I understood the meaning of the phrase “girl power.” We hear it all the time; be strong, be confident, stand up for yourself, do whatever you set your mind to.

Today, “girl power” to me means recognizing your true worth as a woman, taking control of your own life by exploring the things you’re passionate about, taking advantage of the opportunities that are given to you, appreciating the privileges that women before you fought for, standing up for girls worldwide, and fighting for opportunities you may not have yet.

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a paraphrased quote from Gandhi, but many people don’t know that the full quote delivers a much deeper message:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

It is within us to understand our true value and capabilities as humans. Once we are able to do this, we can reflect that out to the world. From here, the world will also change to reflect us. Go out and do what sets your soul on fire.

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Love always,

Jessica

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Shining GEMS: Susan Fochs

In 2016, a program called “GEMS- Girls Empowered and Motivated to Serve” was born. I saw a need for positive female role models in our communities to influence, encourage, and inspire the youngest generation of leaders. As a contestant in the Miss America Organization, I aimed to create a community of strong, powerful girls who wish to make a difference. As I go on the road to host GEMS workshops and share a love for service with others, I decided to feature MORE amazing women who also dedicate their time and talents toward making their communities a better place.

In continuation of this blog series, get ready to meet an incredible young woman I call a friend and sister, Susan Fochs.

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Susan grew up in Door County, Wisconsin and just received her Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services Leadership from UW-Oshkosh in May. She is also currently serving as  Miss Door County 2017 (and let’s be real, I don’t know a single person who WASN’T jumping out of their seats when she was crowned).

Susan has always gone above and beyond when it comes to community involvement. She has been a volunteer, guest speaker, and alumni with the Wisconsin Leadership Seminar; a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin – Fox Valley; a volunteer with Girls on the Run; an intern and volunteer with the Oshkosh Area Community Food Pantry; an intern with the American Red Cross; the Special Events and Public Relations Intern with Make-A-Wish Wisconsin; and various other organizations such as the United Way, Door CANcer, the YMCA, Community Blood Center…the list goes on!

However, one of her greatest accomplishments has been her position as the Founder, President, and CEO of Operation Not Alone. Although this is a pretty important role, Susan thinks “Head Blanket-Making Director” or “Care Package Extraordinaire” describes her position more accurately.

Operation Not Alone – Never Alone. Never Forget.

“At Operation Not Alone, we strive to give our service men and women the utmost support and encouragement by sending very unique and heartwarming care packages to our nation’s bravest,” Susan said. “All of our packages are put together with tremendous care and love. Every service member will receive a handmade fleece blanket specific to his or her branch of service in the military, much needed supplies to use during deployment, and a slew of cards and letters from all types of community members.”

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Operation Not Alone (ONA for short) also has a Cheer Package program, which is sent every year around Veterans Day to brave veterans.

“Our goal is to make sure that no one feels alone during the deployment and beyond, and that each and every service member comes home to warm and open arms. No one will be forgotten and our nation’s bravest will feel our continuous gratitude,” Susan said.

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From the Beginning…

Susan has always been a service driven person, before she even knew a term like that existed.

“I remember doing things in elementary school with my friends, like hosting fundraisers or supply drives for the tsunami victims, planting trees, cleaning up highways, etc. because that’s what I genuinely wanted to do.”

Her biggest catalyst to furthering that service was when she became involved in the Wisconsin Leadership Seminars as a sophomore in high school.

“It was the first time I was truly surrounded by motivating, driven and inspiring individuals who were all trying to find their and make their place in the world. From there, I figured out how to reach out to more organizations to start volunteering!”

Then, as a senior in high school, her life would change forever as she embarked on her first Miss America Organization experience.

Susan and the Miss America Organization

“I took the community service platform very seriously and thought about what I wanted to do in my community and wake up every single morning to advocate for. Something surrounding supporting our troops was the simplest decision to make when I walked home that day and looked at my dad,” Susan said. Susan’s father is a United States Marine Corps veteran.

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After she knew she wanted to have a platform surrounding military support, her ambition grew immensely.

“When I got to college and spoke with my sorority sisters about my passions for competing in the Miss America Organization and supporting our troops, they encouraged me to make the largest the difference I could – founding a non-profit organization,” Susan said.

In the last four and a half years of Operation Not Alone, Susan is so proud of the impact that the team of volunteers (aka – the ONA Family) has been able to make.

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“We’ve got over 500 service members and veterans in our database of Care and Cheer Packages and we’ve been able to visit countless children and classrooms to raise awareness to ensure that no service member is ‘ever alone and never forgotten,'” Susan said. “The ONA Family is certainly unmatched and there are larger projects on the horizon!”

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Greatest Takeaways

Susan reminds everyone to remember the people who were with you during your failures, not just your celebrations.

Anything is possible if you surround yourself with the right people. Find your village, the people who help to push you to become the best possible version of yourself and wholeheartedly have your back,” Susan said.

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In the words of our sensational Miss America 2017, Savvy Shields, “Find a ‘why’ that is not about yourself. Whatever your goals or dreams are, whatever your ‘why’ is, I am a firm believer that our second, or even our third reason ‘why’ should all be the same. If you know ‘why,’ you can endure any ‘how.'”

“Don’t ever take anything or anyone for granted and say ‘thank you’ as often as you can. Oh, and Google is basically my best friend. All hail the power of Google being at our fingertips,” Susan said.

*insert hands-up praise emoji*

How to Get Involved

For more information regarding Operation Not Alone, visit http://www.operationnotalone.net or feel free to send an email to operationnotaloneinc@gmail.com and keep your eyes peeled on their Facebook page for event updates. ONA’s largest volunteer event will take place during the first week of November.

“PLEASE send us the names, branches and addresses of active duty service members and veterans to add to our database!”

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Susan is quite honestly one of the greatest examples when it comes to GEMS. She is truly a Girl Empowered and Motivated to Serve! Thank you for all you do, Susan! You inspire so many to chase their dreams and make their communities a better place.

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