When we talk about encouraging more women to enter tech, you often hear we need to start early. You have probably seen the studies showing that girls interest in tech wanes around middle school which had led to the creation of many girls groups like Girls Who Code or Girl Develop It. Even the Girl Scouts has added badges for STEM activities. Girls groups seem to be everywhere but in Eugene, we are lacking those resources for our girls as well as the resources that bridge the girls into tech careers.
Enter Ophelia’s Place (OP). Maybe you have heard the name and have seen their signs in the community but do you really know what they do?
We sat down with Verna Wise, Executive Director and Abby James, Youth Activities Coordinator to learn more about OP, their relationship to the tech industry, and how the community can get involved in their programming.
RWIT: What is the mission here at OP?
VERNA: OP is a nonprofit organization that helps girls make healthy life choices, raising self-esteem, creating opportunities where they feel safe to explore who they are and different skills and interests. We serve girls and youth identifying as girls ages 10–18.
RWIT: What programs do you have available?
VERNA: We offer drop-in hours, structured classes and camps, and therapy at our Eugene and Junction City locations. We also provide in-school programs and presentations that serve girls and boys. We never turn anyone away for inability to pay for any of our programs and offer several free opportunities. When we completed our youth development research, we uncovered 4 after-school program areas we explore throughout the year:
Whole Girl Health: your body, your sexuality, yoga, meditation, physical activity
Expressive Arts: dance, music, art
Academic Enrichment: homework & education support
GTEC, or Girl Technology Empowerment and Confidence: We’ve offered day-long events that gave girls a taste of robotics and animation. We’ve offered summer camps that explore coding and science. And some of our programming even covers how to interact with technology, like using and staying safe online and while using social media.
RWIT: What, if anything, led to you adding STEM to your offerings?
VERNA: In today’s society, we know girls interact with technology in nearly everything they do. We want them to be introduced to incredible opportunities, and understand safe, smart ways to integrate tech into their lives. During the last 5–6 years, we’ve offered tech-related programs off and on, but it wasn’t until recently that we defined exactly what STEM-related programming is for OP, and made a commitment to offering those programs.
RWIT: What kind of partnerships would you like to see?
VERNA: It’s exciting to watch the tech industry grow in Eugene, and to meet the women who are joining it. We’d love to introduce those women in tech to OP girls. We have girls who are interested in STEM programming, including high schoolers who are exploring careers in tech. It would be wonderful to partner them up with mentors in the industry, offer classes taught by women in tech or encourage our girls to visit local women in tech organizations or tech companies to see it all in action. And of course, sponsoring our programs or events are a huge help too.
ABBY: We’ve partnered with South Eugene Robotics Team and SPICE (Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Excellence) and Women in Graduate Science at the U of O, all who have shared their creativity and tech knowledge with OP girls. We’d love to see more.
RWIT: How important is community support to OP?
ABBY: Community support and donations are how Ophelia’s Place operates. It takes time to build a community and have outreach blossom into ongoing relationships. It has been difficult to have a consistent STEM and tech community partner. Materials are hard to come by and technology changes so quickly that we aren’t always up to date. We have a large population of girls interested in anything STEM-related. Some only show up for STEM programs. Community support helps to make it grow. The girls are here — they’re ready to learn more.
RWIT: What kind of partnerships are you working on now?
ABBY: We have such a cool event and partnership opportunity happening now. Parent-Daughter Girl Con is coming up on June 30th at 1 pm at LCC Downtown. It’s a conference filled with interactive exhibits focused on geek culture. It will be exciting to celebrate fandoms of all kinds and include a variety of ways to express that passion from comics to art and tech. We have a makeup artist coming to do a workshop, a costume designer attending, the Eugene Library is coming with their VR headset, South Eugene Robotics will be there, and we will have LARPing. We also have guest artist Moga coming in from Seattle! We are still working on getting exhibitors from comic book stores, gaming, tech and STEM partners to come do interactive exhibits.
RWIT: What do you need to keep these STEM programs going?
ABBY: We’d love to invite any member of the tech community to visit! Bring your daughters in for a site tour. Come and learn a little more about why giving girls a safe place to explore their interests is so valuable to both girls and to our community. And share some of your creativity and knowledge with our girls through our GTEC programs.