By Madison Wurtele

The Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska is working to empower refugee children and youth through a new program in Lincoln.

The goal is to spread the Girl Scouts’ core values of building courage, confidence and character to young refugees who may not have been exposed to the organization otherwise, said Renae Ninneman, a program and outreach coordinator for Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska. 

The St. Matthew’s Girl Scout group members gather around leader Aliza Brugger to watch a video.

The first group began meeting in August at Park Middle School. The clubs have since expanded to four other locations: Goodrich Middle School, North Star High School, the Asian Community and Cultural Center and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Now about 60 students participate in the weekly meetings. The groups have participants from Sudan, Iraq and several African countries.

“We want all girls to be leaders no matter where they’re from or what language they speak or what religion they are,” Ninneman said.

The after-school style clubs are designed to reach children in 6th through 12th grades. However, some groups have expanded beyond that age range. The curriculum is centered on building young women leaders. Topics include friendship skills, how to deal with conflict and how to handle drama. These lessons are combined with games, bonding activities and field trips.

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church has become one of the newer meeting spots for the Girl Scouts’ refugee program.The group has two clubs: girls in fourth through 8th grade at the Girl Scout Junior and Cadette level and girls in kindergarten through third grade at the Daisy and Brownie level. They’ve taken field trips to Paint Yourself Silly and to the Humane Society. They also dive into deeper topics like friendships, misconceptions and rash judgments.

“We want girls to be making good choices and to be impacting their community in a positive way,” Ninneman said.

During a recent meeting of the St. Matthew’s group, the students took breaks to play games like charades on church’s lawn. The girls have formed a visible bond. They greet each other with hugs and share stories about their week. They giggle and compliment each other’s artwork. They are eager to welcome newcomers and encourage everyone to participate in activities.

Silva, 11, said she likes the variety of experiences. (The Girl Scouts requests that the girls only be identified by first name.)

“We get to know different people,” she said. “We get to notice different experiences.”

Roochda, 9, and Kenda, 10, said they enjoy the field trips and cultural dances.

Members of the St. Matthew’s Girl Scout group play a game of Heads Up.

The idea is to offer the girls a special place, Ninneman said.

“We give them a time where they can come together and feel safe in their identity, you know whatever ethnic culture they have and their language, and give them a place to have fun, to ask questions, to try new things, learn new things and try to build their confidence,” she said. “Any little work we can do to work toward that I think is important.”

The original idea for a refugee-focused clubs was conceived by the Nebraska Girl Scouts chapter well before the presidential election and the travel bans. But the political debate has prompted more interest in the idea — and more volunteers, Ninneman said. And that’s helpful because the majority of the clubs are run by trained volunteers.

“I think people are more interested in learning about refugees, and they’re more willing to help refugees,” she said.

The older group at St. Matthew’s is led by Aliza Brugger, an admissions counselor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She felt a need to do something and found volunteering with the refugee-focused club to be a good fit.

“They’re so smart. They face a lot of challenges, but they don’t demonstrate that at all,” she said. “They’re just little rays of sunshine.”

The group recently had a lesson on stereotypes and how to fight them. The lesson resonated with the girls because it’s an issue they face in their daily lives, Brugger said.

While the clubs are mostly run by volunteers, other expenses are funded at the state level through a grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission. The grant covers the program for one year, but the Girl Scouts has reapplied for second-year funding.

Members of the St. Matthew’s Girl Scout group embrace leader Aliza Brugger during a game of Ships and Sailors.

Ninneman hopes to continue to expand the program into other venues to reach more young women. Although the program has grown to five, Ninneman would like to see more refugee children become involved and has  contacted several refugee-based programs in Lincoln. Many have been excited to partner with the Girl Scouts, but others say they can’t offer a new program because they don’t allow outside volunteers and can’t provide their own.

“I’ve got funding. I’ve got access to volunteers. I’ve got curriculum,” Ninneman said. “I mean I’ve got everything except the girls.”

While the three clubs that currently meet in schools will stop in May, the St. Matthew’s group and the Asian Community and Cultural center group will continue into the summer, Ninneman said. She also hopes to start summer-only groups. The tentative plan is to create day-camp type activities.

Ninneman said she hopes the summer groups can continue the momentum for a program that is needed.

“I think refugee girls are kind of hidden, or overlooked, or underestimated. I think they have significant barriers dealing with culture, religion and language on top of the regular poverty barriers that girls and kids have,” she said.  “And on top of that, you know, the drama that girls deal with in the classroom, already not having confidence, like the same kind of barriers a regular middle schooler would have.”