The girls and women in our network are the heart of Girls Action Foundation. Passionate. Smart. Caring. Powerful. They live in all regions of Canada, in diverse communities yet united by a shared goal: To change the world for girls, and assist girls to change the world.
Here are some of our members’ stories. They are young women becoming leaders. They are women creating welcoming places where girls grow strong and whole. They are bringing communities together and making the world a better place for us all.
"Girls have an innate ability to be change-makers. They just need a strong support system, willing and respectful adults to work with, and the freedom to take space to be seen and heard.” - Andrea Canales-Figueroa, Vancouver BC
"Seeing my baby girl in my arms made me realize I had to do something – to make sure she would have opportunities in her life."
Passion for girls’ empowerment shines bright in the eyes of Andrea Canales-Figueroa.
Earlier in her life, at age 18, Andrea had emigrated from Costa Rica. “I always dreamed about going to a place where equality was a given. But when I arrived in Canada, because I didn’t speak the language, many people thought I was stupid and I didn’t get many chances.”
Andrea became determined to not only stay in Canada but to build a different future - for her daughter and for all girls. It was the first-ever national conference on girls – organized by Girls Action Foundation in 2003 – that catapulted Andrea into action.
Back home in Vancouver, she created the GoGirls Leadership Program for racialized and Indigenous girls and young women. She also joined the all-Aboriginal Girlz Group on the Vancouver Eastside as a coordinator. A self-professed “mama bear,” she now mentors girls to think for themselves and stand up for justice.
"I listen to what the girls want and work with them to figure out action plans to achieve their goals. It’s not just lip service. We make sure the girls know they have full ownership of their dreams and the right to ask for help from mentors."
"Girls have an innate ability to be change-makers. They just need a strong support system, willing and respectful adults to work with, and the freedom to take space to be seen and heard."
Girls growing up in Andrea’s programs are a force for a better world. Now young women, they are becoming nurses, teachers, lawyers, artists and, like Nasra and Hawa Mire, up-and-coming social entrepreneurs...
On the surface, Andrea runs a dance school. Look a little closer and you will see her real passion: helping Northern youth, especially girls, “express themselves and learn to be leaders.”
"When I was young, I knew I wasn’t a very good Brownie, and I knew I wasn’t a very good Girl Scout! But I was good at dance. Knowing that gave me confidence to get through the dark times", Andrea remembers.
Andrea has toured small Yukon communities offering empowerment camps for girls. Her camps combine education about key issues - sexual health and drug and alcohol abuse prevention – with hip hop dance and choreography classes. She also led a camp in Nunavut, invited by a community group she met through the Girls Action Network.
Back home at Leaping Feats Creative Danceworks, Andrea sees every class as an opportunity to mentor and support girls. “When I am teaching dance, I always have an ear tuned. Even if it’s a ballet class, if someone needs to talk about an issue, they can. If a girl has questions, I just answer them frankly.”
Many of the girls have found support to face harsh realities. Andrea, who also has youth counselor training, hears about the violence, the confusion about sex and relationships, the racism and the challenges with self-esteem and poverty. “From me just listening to the girls, the dance studio has become a safe haven for youth.”
Recently with funds from Girls Action, Andrea opened a drop-in that gives girls the equipment and space to make videos, podcasts and music tracks. “On a Saturday night, it’s not uncommon to see 15 dancers, spending time together creating stuff and not out partying. That’s a big deal.”
"Sometimes I can feel really isolated, but when I have contact with Girls Action, I get inspired again. Every time, I come away with fundraising ideas, and tons of resources, and inspiration to do another project!"
These sisters from Surrey, BC, joined Andrea’s leadership program as teenagers. “When I started Go Girls, I never spoke,” Nasra remembers. “I gradually realized that it was important to say what I needed to say. It helped that everyone in the room shared the experience of having a cultural difference from the mainstream.”
“I am not afraid to share my views anymore. Actually, now I’m a motivational speaker in my job! Last week I spoke to 600 people at a high school to encourage them to get involved in global issues.”
Hawa says that Go Girls opened doors for her, especially the community projects they undertook each year as part of the National Day of Action sponsored by Girls Action. “We decided what we wanted to do – on poverty, or racism, or to build intergenerational connections with older women. Then Andrea connected us to a lot of people in the community, taught us how to network, and helped us figure out how to organize events.”
Those opportunities, plus Girls Action’s leadership training workshops, were “stepping stones” to a great achievement. In 2008, Hawa and Nasra founded a new organization that is affecting youth at home and across the globe.
Point Youth Media trains young people in BC and in Uganda to use digital video, sound and photo and oral storytelling. With these tools, youth express what’s important to them and connect with youth from different cultures to talk about global issues.
Hawa’s goal is to create programs just for African and Black girls. “We usually don’t think of it, but boys have a lot of places that are just for them, like sports or youth centres that are actually geared towards male youth. Girls don’t have the same kind of spaces.”
“It was really important for us to go to East Africa because our family is from Somalia,” Nasra explains. “When I talk with girls in Uganda, I try to give them tools, encouragement, and information, like I got. Go Girls made me believe I could do more in life, and that is what I want to pass on.”
“We need these girls. These are the young people that will be responsible for the changes that need to happen in our world.” – Hawa Mire
How do you reach girls in a neighbourhood where trust is hard to build, where poverty and racism are everyday realities? Kim Melnyk did it by walking around a rough area in Winnipeg’s north end with a suitcase of art supplies. She sat down and made crafts with girls wherever she could find them.
This down-to-earth approach is characteristic of Kim. It was also the driving force behind the North Star Girls Club, an afterschool program that for 10 years was like a second home for hundreds of neighbourhood girls. In this “poverty capital” of Manitoba, girls are surrounded by prostitution and drug trade. At Girls Club they found healthy food, an understanding ear, and a safe place to just be. The Laurel Centre started the program to help reduce child sexual abuse, while every day the girls were solicited for sex just outside the door.
In this context, it was not easy to keep Girls Club running.
“Girls Action has given me so much support over the years – funds, encouragement, and the chance to exchange with other girls’ programs. I learned through Girls Action to truly value our work with girls, and this has stayed with me and inspires me every day.”
Kim recently reached out to Girls Action for organizational mentorship as she embarks on an initiative that could change the lives of even more girls.
The Government of Manitoba took notice of the innovative methods used by Kim and colleagues in their Outreach Network. The government is consulting with this network to reduce the sexual exploitation of girls. Kim has met with the Minister responsible for Child Protection and is active on a committee with Police, Missing Children and other outreach agencies.
“Finally we’ve got a voice that is being heard by the right people,” she says. “The Police say they are changing the way they deal with sexually exploited girls and runaways in Winnipeg, and it’s because they sat around a table with us and heard our approach. They learned to build relationships with street involved youth instead of just policing them.”
“These girls are not just victims. Their potential is endless. If girls are given the tools and the chance, they can change the world.”
Girls Action gave me strength to do what I want to do in life, what inspires me. Through Girls Action, I met a lot of girls with the same aspects as me. This made me want to make a difference in youth, especially young girls.
I am from Iqaluit, and originally from Kimmirut, Nunavut. I first got involved with Girls Action when I went to Make Some Noise North in Whitehorse. Young girls and women from across Canada came together for a one-week leadership skills workshop.
After taking that course I was like, “I wish every girl could take this!” It gave me a big boost of confidence to my self-esteem because I was really shy. When I came home, I could say to people, “I have this skill now” and “I have been to this training”…
One of the workshops we did in Whitehorse was about sexual health. That topic made me want to learn more and to bring that knowledge to educate other youth in Nunavut.
In my community, I don’t see a lot of confidence or knowledge about sexual health. Teen pregnancy is one of the issues. Why don’t they wear a condom? Maybe they don’t have confidence and not enough resources. I think girls are usually shy, like, maybe you’re bad if you talk about this stuff, or “ewww!”
My dream is to give presentations to schools and communities to promote sexual health. I need to practice more to develop the skills, so I went to a Sexual Health Conference in Kujjuuaq and now I am a representative for an Aboriginal Youth STI Intervention Committee.
My hope for the girls in my community is that they can be more aware of their health and take care of themselves. I also want them to try new things, like I am doing, going to Girls Action retreats and the leadership training.
My community, Jane and Finch, is known as a “priority needs” neighbourhood. I grew up seeing some of my friends murdered, seeing government-built townhouses burn down because they did not have fire alarms, and the families literally dying.
I just got tired of watching the news and seeing my community overshadowed by violence. I finally realized I could not wait for someone else to do something.
One of the first steps I took was attend a Girls Action retreat. I was able to hear what was happening for girls, not only in my own backyard but around the country. I had never been part of anything like that before, a gathering of so many different communities.
I decided to start my own group where girls and women can have a voice and help to shape the community. WORC IT! (Women of Race Climbing it Together) was born.
One of our proudest accomplishments is the Aspiring Leaders Project. Teen girls from the neighborhood take part in a year-long program, with eight mentors available for them on a continuous basis. The girls are looking at themselves differently. Sometimes I get letters from moms saying, ‘You don’t know how much you’ve changed my family.’ Not only are we affecting our daughters, we are affecting our sons because they start to see their sisters differently.
Girls Action provided a seed grant for the Aspiring Leaders Project. That gave WORC IT the momentum to apply for other sources of funding. This shows the ripple effect – from Girls Action, to our community organization, to the girls, some of whom are now starting their own projects.
I can honestly say that Girls Action has been WORC IT’s #1 supporter. It is an organization that really keeps in contact with its members. In my hectic life as a mother of 3, a teacher, a wife and a community advocate, Girls Action always stayed in touch with me. This contact helped me keep building my dream - to decrease the violence in Jane and Finch and create a strong network of people who can empower each other. This is where my heart is. This dream is what gives me peace and keeps me going.
“I want girls to realize that they, too, can be change agents and that what they think matters. I also want to get away from the socialization of grooming girls only for the acceptance of boys, and de-mystify what it means to be ‘beautiful.’”