by Rhonda Bishop
In Her Shoes is a series that profiles young women working in YWCAs across the country.
Erin Barstow is an AmeriCorps VISTA program assistant for the GUTS (Girls Using Their Strengths)! program of YWCA Missoula. GUTS! is a girls’ leadership and empowerment program designed by and for girls ages nine to 18. Now serving her second year of AmeriCorps, Erin is developing a strategic plan as well as helping expand the program to underserved communities outside of Missoula. Erin graduated from the University of Rochester ; she has worked with youth in coaching positions, outdoor settings and in the classroom, and she considers working with and empowering adolescent girls her heart’s work.
YWCA: Describe your normal day from your first morning coffee and on…
EB: I love the variability of my job: facilitating after-school groups and strategic planning meetings, recruiting volunteers, forging relationships with community partners, researching grant opportunities and leading outdoor adventure trips. Most days aren’t the same. Right now I’m working with the program manager to organize and run a training for our incoming volunteer facilitators, reaching out to community contacts interested in starting up GUTS!-like programs, advising a high school student’s senior project on offering free self-defense trainings to her high school, and processing evaluation data from our summer outdoor adventure programs.
YWCA: Name three skill sets that you find important to be successful in your role
EB: Adaptability, a positive attitude, active listening.
I have learned that adaptability and efficiency are key skill sets when working for a program with so few staff and so many volunteers. While I focus on specific projects, I am bound to shift my attention to helping a volunteer find supplies for her GUTS! group, subbing for a GUTS! group leader, organizing work projects for interns, and spontaneously meeting with a participant who drops by the office to say “hello.” Additionally, working with a group of young girls keeps me on my toes. As a facilitator, I need to plan an adaptable curriculum for days where no one can sit still for a discussion or when, for example, an altercation between the girls warrants the group’s full attention to resolve.
While the groups we run are not therapeutic by title, they are by nature. We utilize active listening — intentional and mindful interactions between the speaker and the listener — to process feelings in a healthy and supportive way and to deepen relationships with our participants. Adolescence marks a time of seeking authenticity in a confusion of rules, expectations, and societal norms; active listening creates a safe space for our participants to voice their needs, fears, hopes and dreams. Active listening allows facilitators to be present with participants and for participants to be present with one another. It is an incredibly empowering mode of communication.
YWCA: What excites you the most about your job?
EB: While the focus of my VISTA term is primarily indirect service and capacity-building, I also work directly with adolescent girls in elementary through high school in a variety of programs. This balance allows me to gain a holistic perspective of experiencing the needs of girls and fulfilling those needs. Working directly with girls influences our development of current, relevant and relatable curriculum material. Qualitatively and quantitatively evaluating our participants pre- and post-program inform how we shape their experience. We actively work to engage girls at every stage of our program, never losing sight of our mission statement: to support young women in discovering their strengths, developing their leadership skills, and using their voices to activate positive community change through mentoring, small group discussion, outdoor challenges and community action projects. My work is my passion. What is more exciting than that?
YWCA: Do you have a favorite client success story? If so what is it?
EB: I love working with teenagers. I am in continual awe of their introspection, aspirations and navigation of societal norms to pave their own way through life. Our LEAD (Leadership Enhancement And Development) project is a seminar series involving a group of community-nominated high school girls coming together twice a month to discuss body image, leadership styles, goal brainstorming, activism and volunteerism, crisis and coping, healthy friendships and so much more. Facilitating this group, and leading wilderness adventure trips with some of these same participants, I have come to know many of these young women intimately. I watched a self-conscious girl embrace her femininity and come to love her every curve. I witnessed a shy young woman develop into a charismatic leader over the course of four days. I listened to the powerful stories of overcoming fear, adversity, change, silence, and animosity. These young women are empowered change agents, all of whom I am so proud to call friends and allies. I am a mentor to these young women, and I could not be more proud.
YWCA: What do you like most about working at the YWCA?
EB: I feel so fortunate to be a part of such a vibrant, strong, empowered group of women who I can both turn to for advice and to converse with casually. These women are mentors and friends, all of whom are so accessible and eager to work with me to develop my skill sets and interests. Every day I know my voice is recognized, and with this knowledge I feel I am able to accomplish whatever I set my mind to.