Girl Power: Life Skills, Then Some at Nonprofit NONPROFITS By SHERRI CRUZ Sunday, September 5, 2010 Girls Inc

. August luncheon: girls show their business to attendees Nicole introduces herself, shakes my hand and takes me on a tour of Girls Incorporated of Orange County in Costa Mesa. The 7-year-old has short strawberry blond hair and freckles to match. She’s composed and articulate. Even precocious. I’m told she’s a typical Girls Inc. girl. “They’re wired to interact with adults,” said Kim Shepherd, a Girls Inc. board member and chief executive of Irvine-based Decision Toolbox, a recruiting company. “They’re taught interpersonal and life skills.” The nonprofit, an affiliate of New York-based Girls Inc., offers after-school and summer programs in Costa Mesa and at 54 elementary, middle and high schools. The programs are designed to give girls—many who come from families strapped for cash and time—a boost in school and business. The goal is to help girls overcome hurdles that can keep them from pursuing careers in science and math or keep them from being happy and financially independent. Women business leaders are some of the group’s biggest supporters. Among them are Knott’s Berry Farm heiress and philanthropist Marion Knott, Marie Gray, cofounder of Irvine-based St. John Knits International Inc., and Marta Bhathal, director of Tustin-based Raj Manufacturing Inc. Other backers include: Lynn Salo, vice president of sales and marketing for a unit of Irvinebased Allergan Inc.; philanthropist Louise “Liz” Merage; Newport Beach celebrity chef Jamie Gwen; Melissa Pollard, senior vice president and group manager at Comerica Bank’s Costa Mesa office; and Gena Reed, chief executive of Irvine-based Paragon Biomedical Inc., which runs clinical trials for drug makers and medical device makers. Along with financial support, many women get involved in the lives of the girls. “Our volunteers take the girls under their wing,” said Lucy Santana-Ornelas, the nonprofit’s executive director. Reed’s Paragon Biomedical employed a Girls Inc. girl as an intern for eight weeks. She’s now a junior in college, on a scholarship awarded by Girls Inc.’s national organization.

“I’m still in touch with her today,” Reed said. Back on the tour, Nicole leads me outside to La La Land, the name for a mini society where the older girls have set up mock businesses on tables. They’re selling real stuff to the younger girls, who use pretend money. The girls are hawking books, water toys, granola bars and T-shirts. They choose and set up the businesses themselves. There’s even a banker. The girls write proposals and decide on the type of business they want to run, such as a corporation or a sole proprietorship. They buy their inventory from the supply room manager—one of the girls—and price their goods to make a profit. As the girls wrap up business for the day, my tour guide shows me what else they do at Girls Inc. In the science room, there are several Lego lands set up. Yes, girls like Legos, too. One of the things that Girls Inc. does is get girls into activities and careers that have been targeted to boys. Playing with Legos is like an introduction to engineering. Every year, Boeing Co.’s women engineers speak to the girls about technical careers. “We bring examples of women who are successful in business so they can see that in themselves,” Reed said. Education Middle school girls learn science and math as part of Girls Inc.’s summer program. They also learn about careers and classes they should be taking to get into college. The program is held at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. “That is what bowled me over,” Reed said. “These are middle school girls on a college campus.” Girls Inc. also assists the older girls—and their parents—in getting financial aid and scholarships for college. “It’s something they’ve never had to do before,” Santana-Ornelas said. Girls Inc. is looking to expand some of its programs across the county. Right now, the local arm primarily serves cities in Central OC.

Girls Inc. is one of the few social services groups that teaches things such as pregnancy prevention, financial literacy and self-sufficiency at the county’s juvenile detention facilities. “We’re teaching these girls that there is life beyond incarceration,” Santana-Ornelas said. Girls Inc.’s after-school and summer program fees generate about 18% of its annual budget of $1.7 million, which has stayed flat for the past couple of years. Other income comes from foundations and grants. An annual fundraising gala—this year’s is set for late October at the Balboa Bay Club & Resort in Newport Beach—is expected to raise about $326,000. Girls Inc. has 23 workers and about 1,500 volunteers. Back on the tour, we’ve moved on to the arts and crafts room where girls make piggybanks out of two cups and stickers. The exercise is as much about money as arts and crafts. “We learned about all the coins and about saving the money,” Nicole says. In the kitchen, girls are readying for their “lend a hand” bake sale, which raises money for the charity of their choice. Outside is a barren garden where Taco Bell Corp. employees are set to make a “secret garden.” Irvine-based Taco Bell, part of Kentucky’s Yum Brands Inc., held a competition among its employees to decide the garden’s theme. Other companies that back Girls Inc. include Mountain View-based Google Inc., which has an Irvine office, Costa Mesa’s C.J. Segerstrom & Sons LLC and DiMaggio Group Inc., a Newport Beach-based marketing company. Laguna Beach’s Athena Chiera recently taught the girls how to make bat houses—flat wooden boxes that are like bird houses for bats—using power tools. Chiera, vice president of San Dimas-based Athena Engineering Inc., her family’s construction business, taught the girls how to use the tools and gave each girl her own tool box. “They got to use every single power tool in addition to their own toolkit,” she said. “We even taught them how to stain. It was a blast.” Girls Inc. has a knack for harnessing volunteers, according to Chiera. “You give (Girls Inc.) an idea and they run with it,” she said. “It’s why I love working with them.”

Chiera, a black belt in martial arts, also teaches a self-defense class at Girls Inc. The tour comes to an end. “Last but not least, the front yard, where girls get to play,” my tour guide Nicole says. There’s a pirate ship to climb on. Nicole demonstrates. Workers from a local Home Depot helped build the ship. There are mounds of dirt, where the girls build streams and get all muddy before being hosed off. “This is the end of the tour,” Nicole says. “Thank you for visiting, have a good day.” She then shakes my hand and runs off to lunch.