In 2017, Carson Ekhardt, then a junior at Tampa’s Berkeley Preparatory School, along with some friends and faculty members, formed the Girls Outside program after receiving the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation’s Community Hero of Tomorrow grant. Five years later, Girls Outside is still going strong.
Girls Outside is open to any rising sixth-grade girl attending RCMA Wimauma Community Academy. The Girls Outside program uses activities like canoeing, ropes courses, and other outdoor challenges to instill confidence, self-reliance, and leadership skills in young women so they can excel from middle school to high school to college and beyond.
Girls Outside is primarily run by young women who attend Berkeley along with RCMA graduates of the program who return to share the knowledge they gained with their younger counterparts. A Berkeley teacher, Ms. Kim Lawless, serves as a faculty advisor.
The program begins with a week of daily activities during the summer. During the school year, the group meets one Saturday each month. Each day includes an outdoor bonding activity and a mentoring session during which the girls share with one another the lessons that they learned from the activities and how they might apply on a broader scale. For example, Clara Jergins, a Berkeley graduate who returns from college each summer to be a part of the program, says, “Something as simple as jumping off of a diving board can be a life lesson. We want to teach the girls that sometimes you have to take a risk, and it’s okay and even good to take the risk when you’ve prepared and know where it can lead. Smart risks can be a good thing!”
Sometimes the mentoring activities are specific to certain situations like study habits or interview tactics. Janely Rodriguez, an RCMA grad who returns from college each summer to serve as a Girls Outside mentor, remembers these sessions. “One of the best lessons is that we all have to be our own best advocate,” says Janely. “We discuss how to be confident and professional and how to use that when talking to others. Good posture and maintaining eye contact can be so important when you are advocating for your position.” Janely says that she often uses those skills herself.
With the initial grant from the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and a second grant from Community Foundation Tampa Bay, Girls Outside celebrated its fifth birthday in 2021. The program is now staffed by younger friends and siblings of the women who founded it, along with RCMA students who completed the program that return to share their experiences. “The program has become more intentional,” says Linda Miles-Adams, a former Berkeley parent, RCMA Board Member, and strong supporter of Girls Outside. “Activities now include visits to local high schools the girls might attend, such as Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School and, of course, Berkeley Prep. These are great schools, and we want the girls to apply. We are also planning a Women’s Summit for March of 2022 that will introduce the girls to successful women of all ages and help broaden their perspectives even more. Girls Outside offers a rare opportunity to bring together women from various backgrounds to learn from one another in a safe, supportive space. We have all gained from the experiences we’ve shared.”