October 19, 2021

Power Up

Andover turns out in force for Strong Girls
by Nancy Hitchcock

I am smart…I am loving…I am grateful…I believe in myself.” One after another, the bright-eyed 5th-grade girls repeated these encouraging words.

The affirmations could be heard during a Strong Girls United (SGU) six-week program devised by Myra Bhathena ’22, co-captain for Andover’s girls soccer team and girls outdoor track and field team.

“I created this program with three words in mind: Empowerment. Joy. Health,” says Bhathena, in a video about SGU at Bellesini Academy in Lawrence, Mass. “Despite all the challenges these girls were facing—exacerbated by the pandemic—my helpers and I worked tirelessly to bring light into their lives.”

PA students teamed with local girls and Spark Fitness in Andover to practice exercise, mindfulness, and positive self-talk.

Bhathena is one of dozens of PA students and alumnae serving as mentors and ambassadors for SG United Foundation, a nonprofit organization that inspires girls to be strong, confident, and resilient. Founded in 2018 by former PA math instructor and coach Lani Silversides, SGU programs include multiple sports and exercise, leadership, and mental health and well-being activities.

Silversides, who played basketball at the University of Vermont, took sport psychology courses while working at Andover, primarily to help seniors tap their mental strength when playing college sports. Tools included ways to boost confidence and gratitude that, in turn, increase motivation and performance. Many of these same principles apply to the SGU model, which incorporates the motto: strong bodies, kind hearts, and unstoppable minds.

More than 250 college-athlete volunteers have served as coaches or mentors from 14 different universities, including Tufts, Bates, Boston University, and Yale, and the majority of those programs have a connection to PA alumnae. Many of these alumnae appreciated the support and guidance they received from their PA coaches and instructors; therefore, they feel compelled to mentor the rising generation.

Katie Kreider ’14, former three-sport athlete at Andover and soccer player at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., looked up to Silversides and helped to establish a pilot program. Kreider recruited athletes from other sports teams at Hamilton and joined with a local elementary school.

“We had such a great group of female athletes at Hamilton,” says Kreider, “I thought it would be a great way to get involved in the community and give young girls a chance to see what a female athlete looks like and stands for. I had my brother, Chris, (Kreider ’10), to look up to as a great athlete.” Not everyone has a New York Rangers player in their corner, but both Kreiders are big fans of encouraging young female athletes.

Myra Bhathena ’22 (top right) practices empowerment poses with 5th-grade girls, part of the six-week SGU program that she introduced at Bellesini Academy in Lawrence, Mass.

Part of the objective is to help them “feel comfortable participating in athletics and not being self-conscious about it,” adds Kreider, who is now a soccer and basketball coach and works at Groton School. “I was also proud that [Hamilton funded the afternoon meetings for elementary school girls] so there were no barriers to entry.”

Corina Lindsay ’17 played basketball at PA and continued the sport at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where she served as an ambassador by launching Strong Girls United. “SGU combines my love for helping others and competitive sports,” she says. “I hope to give these girls an opportunity to become better versions of themselves and connect with other strong female athletes.”

For Lindsay, her program at Union not only had an impact on the elementary school girls, but it left a lasting impression. When she graduated from Union in 2021, Lindsay received the Community Service and Community Outreach Award, in part because she brought SGU to the college.

For every alumnae connection, the common thread of having support from their Andover coaches not only provided validation, but a reason to give back.

Beth Krikorian ’17, who implemented Strong Girls United at Tufts in 2020 with Kristina Haghdan ’17, says that her field hockey and lacrosse coaches were instrumental to her development. “Kate Dolan was the most important mentor to me at Andover, as well as Martha Fenton, Taylor Ware, and Heidi Wall—they are incredible women to look up to,” says Krikorian. “Sports have always been a major part of my life, so it’s important to me that other young girls have the opportunity to be part of a strong community. It is so rewarding to see them face some of their fears and grow.”

Bhathena appreciates her Andover coaches for introducing her to mindfulness practice, which contributes to her character as an athlete and person. Reflecting on SGU at Bellesini, she says:

“I know a program is succeeding when the shyest girl in the group asks to lead an exercise, or the quietest girl shows me her artwork without any prompting. I believe that in this supportive and kind environment the girls truly learn and grow,” she says.

When Bhathena contacted Bellesini’s head of school to offer 5th-grade girls a remote program during the pandemic, she also organized a grassroots fundraiser that raised more than $1,200 to sponsor it. “I am happy to share I have been asked to continue this program yearly, so that every girl attending Bellesini Academy will go through the SGU program,” enthuses Bhathena. It is incredibly validating, she says, “when the girls share what they have learned with other girls outside of the program. When my six weeks ended, I received an email from the head of school containing videos and pictures of the 5th graders teaching the 8th graders the SGU “Powerflow” warmup to loud cheers of ‘I am strong’ and ‘I am kind.’ Honestly, I felt like crying happy tears: I knew I was successful because I was no longer needed!”

If you're interested in getting involved with SGU or bringing a program to your community or university, you can contact the organization here.

Categories: Campus Life

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