We all need a ray of sunshine some days, and for me it’s especially true in the winter. I hope a word on some amazing young Mainers will provide not just a ray, but a beam of light to illuminate the potential of girls’ power if the culture begins to value them as equal.

Twenty years ago, Lyn Mikel Brown, Lynn Cole and I created a program that grew into an organization dedicated to supporting girls in realizing their power to change the world. Since then, thousands of girls from around the state have been engaged in the Girls Unlimited! Conference, Adventure Girls, and/or Girls Coalition Groups. It’s been an amazing gift to watch girls’ transformations as they come to understand how much power they have to bring about change.

About 10 years ago, the Girls Rock! Awards were born. We wanted to highlight the amazing accomplishments of girls who make a difference in their communities. We chose six fields: girls with disabilities, girls in sports, girls in business, girls in health, community organizing, and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). When I think back on what I was doing during my pre-teen and teenage years, the accomplishments of Maine girls ages 9 to 18 in just these five areas seem especially astounding.

Here are some words on this year’s winners.

Diagnosed deaf at the age of 2, 17-year-old Emma Foster from Orrington took on the challenge of making sure insurance companies in Maine were mandated to provide hearing tests to newborns. She has conducted classes for future social workers, principals, and students majoring in special needs at the University of Maine, was nominated to the board of commissioners for the former Baxter School, is the state of Maine’s “Student Ambassador” representing all the deaf and hard-of-hearing children, and serves on the Maine Educational Center for the deaf/hard-of-hearing school board.

Brenda Viola, now living in Portland, came to Maine from a Kenyan refugee camp five years ago when she was 12. A senior at Deering High School, she speaks publicly about the environment, tutors elementary school children, is part of the Maine Medical Explorers program, sings in a choir of immigrant youth, worked on the Know Your Rights project to help other immigrants, and has found time to be on the Deering track team and sing in a choir of immigrant youth.

Third-grader Kahler Marsh of Scarborough is breaking down barriers for girls in sports. Last spring, Kahler was the only girl in Scarborough to play for a Little League baseball team as well as the only girl to play on the boys’ youth lacrosse team. In the fall, she was the only girl to play flag football. When people ask why she wants to play traditional boys sports, Kahler simply replies, “Why not?”

Seventeen-year-old Riley Mayes is a community organizer working to create a school and community climate of safety and healthy sexuality by preventing gender-based violence among young people. As a board member of Maine Boys to Men’s Youth Advisory Committee, she’s helped to create new curriculum content around healthy sexuality, healthy relationships, online harassment, and sexting and technology respect, and has been the lead facilitator of training for students.

Bangor student Marina Mohawass is the leader of Bangor High’s state of Maine Stormwater Management Research Team (SMART) program, a National Science Foundation-funded program that seeks to engage underrepresented students in STEM education and careers. Marina escaped repression and likely death when her father sent her to this country from Egypt with the hope of having her live in a safe place and pursue her education. Excelling in a highly competitive academic program at Bangor High, Marina is seen at school as late as 9 p.m. working on her various research projects, including one designed to remove heavy metal pollutants, E. coli, and phosphorus from contaminated water supplies. Last year she designed an “ecological diaper” using cellulose nanofibers to eliminate plastic from the waste stream.

At age 12, Jaelin Roberts of Bangor began baking macarons for her friends. The owners of a coffee shop in Bangor tried one of Jaelin’s macarons and offered to sell them at the shop. Six months later, Simply Macarons by Jaelin was launched, and she began selling online, by phone, and at a local farmer’s market. Now 14, Jaelin gives 10 percent of her profits to the nonprofit Love Without Boundaries to help orphaned and impoverished children.

Hardy Girls will honor these remarkable young women on March 2 at the Maine Girls’ Academy in Portland. The featured speaker will be 19-year-old Amanda Gorman, the nation’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman is the founder and executive director of the organization One Pen One Page, which promotes literacy among youth through creative writing.

Here’s part of a poem she wrote at age 5:

I saw how we always pick the flower swelling with the most color.

The color distinguishes it from the rest, and tells us:

This flower should not be left behind.

But this does not happen in the case of colored girls.

Our color makes hands pull back, and we, left to grow alone,

stretching our petals to a dry sun.

I hope you’ll join me for Hardy Girls’ Girls Rock! Awards. But if you can’t, consider supporting their work in honor of a girl you love.

Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.

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