During her first week as a high school student, Jessie Bailey experienced an anxiety attack.
The Shelby High School freshman found comfort in English teacher Jackie Duncan’s classroom, which has a cozy and mellow ambiance with its twinkle lights, bean bag chairs and other living room furniture and decor.
Besides being a warm and welcoming spot, Duncan’s classroom serves as the meeting place for Shelby High School’s GOLD (Girls Owning Lives of Dignity) program. Launched in the spring of 2015, GOLD is a group dedicated to empowering and encouraging young women at Shelby City Schools.
Bailey, as well as several other Shelby students, said this program has served as a refuge of sorts, giving members the freedom to be themselves without the fear of being judged or gossiped about.
“We can talk about certain stuff because it’s a safe place and you know it won’t be spread,” Bailey said.
Cultivating a safe environment for students to discuss what can sometimes be sensitive subjects was one of Duncan’s goals when helping form the group. GOLD has evolved over time to also focus on leadership-building opportunities as well as service projects.
Projects have included the distribution of hygiene kits to middle and high school students with the support of the Women's Fund of The Shelby Foundation, as well as an ongoing recycling program initiated at the high school.
The projects are created and executed by the students with assistance from Duncan.
GOLD has also played an integral role in the formation of a high school girls soccer team.
“The biggest part of GOLD being involved was being a persistent force to ensure that everything got put in place,” Duncan said.
The team is being funded by a grant from the Women’s Fund of the Richland County Foundation.
Before becoming an official varsity sport, the soccer team will function as a club for the first three years, but Duncan indicated the timeframe could be expedited depending on student interest. The soccer club will kick off this coming fall.
“It just makes me happy because a lot of girls said they wanted that and years before they never really tried to, but this year we took initiative,” said sophomore Makenna Finnegan.
The GOLD program also rallied around the Gies family when student Lindsey Gies was recovering from a life-threatening infection. Through a concerted effort with other groups and individuals at the school and in the community, they were able to raise almost $30,000 to help offset medical costs that the Gies family incurred, Duncan said.
Starting next year, GOLD will offer a mentorship program for middle school girls, with members of GOLD serving as the mentors.
“They realized middle school is a time of vulnerability with so many different things coming at you, and to give a middle school girl a strong female role model that they can spend time with and talk to and create some kind of stable foundation can change an entire life for the better,” Duncan said.
Already they’ve been brainstorming different activities for the mentorship program. Autumn Shirk, a junior, described one of her ideas: filling balloons with paint of various colors meant to represent different emotions that the girls could throw at a giant canvas.
Duncan praised the group for taking ownership of projects and using their creativity and talents for the benefit of others.
“I’m so proud of these girls,” Duncan said. “You have no idea.”
The group is also making its own podcasts.
“The point of the podcasts is giving the girls a platform and voice that exceeds their current environment,” Duncan said.
GOLD has about 50 members, many of whom acknowledged how grateful they are to be involved in a group like GOLD for the the friendships that they’ve made.
Filtering into Duncan’s classroom, it’s not uncommon for each student to be greeted with a warm welcome.
“Happy birthday!” the students roared when a birthday girl walked into the room.
“You look so cute,” one shouted as another student entered.
Although GOLD is geared toward females, the group does not segregate. In fact, there are a few male members in the group.
Zyn Lugo, a junior, shared why he wanted to join GOLD.
“I wanted to be part of it because I feel like what some of these girls feel: they can’t be comfortable around other people in the school and talk about how things are, things going on, countless things that people have called me, and I come here and I feel accepted,” he said.
GOLD has given students a place to feel accepted — as well as empowered.
Earlier this year, members of the group attended a one-day women's leadership conference at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, hearing from speakers such as Dr. Elizabeth Castle, a scholar-activist-media maker; Buffi D. Williams, licensed social worker and founder of New Day Life Center; Jodie Perry, president and CEO of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce, among others.
Duncan described the conference as absolutely fabulous and empowering, adding that she hopes to replicate that environment in her classroom.
“Just being surrounded by strong women, it was a beautiful experience,” Finnegan said.