This program for girls and moms in Fort Wayne is creating a powerful legacy of female leadership

Denita Washington grew up in a supportive family with two loving parents. But what she learned as a young woman was that she needed more than a strong nuclear family to be successful in life. She needed people outside of her family—coaches, leaders, and mentors—shaping and affirming her identity. That network, which she luckily found among a cheerleading coach, a high school guidance counselor, and others, has made her into the woman she is today.

"Without them, I might not be here," Washington says, and here is a pretty good place to be.

Today, Washington owns her own home that she built in a beautiful suburb of the Southeast side, nestled between the city and rural community of New Haven. She runs a successful program called Girlz Rock, which helps young women and their mothers of all races rise up through woman-to-woman support, mentorship, and leadership training.

Denita Washington started Girlz Rock out of a desire to help girls and their moms discover who they are and live in healthy relationships with others.

Along with managing Girlz Rock, Washington is making history herself in Northeast Indiana as the first African American and the first woman to be Trustee of Adams County. But being a woman confident enough to launch her own leadership program and elevate her voice to serve in local government is not something Washington has always been comfortable doing.

She remembers when she was in middle school, and her cheerleading coach at Metro Youth Sports named her captain of the squad. Washington serves the Fort Wayne community in various leadership roles today, and her work for Girlz Rock is on a volunteer basis.

"The other girls on the squad taunted me all the way home because I got the leadership position," Washington says. "I learned very quickly about friendship dynamics, and what leadership can cost you."

From that point on growing up, Washington did not accept any leadership roles for fear of losing friends. At Blackhawk Middle School, she even turned down the opportunity to cheer on the squad because she was so afraid of what being a leader might cost her.

"Fear can set in at a young age and trap you in your pursuit of moving forward," she says. "I continued to journey with fear in my relationships well into high school where I became a teen mom of two boys."

Along with the birth of her boys, a new purpose was born within Washington rooted in the affirmation and self-discovery she learned from female role models in her life. She began to realize that her fear of leadership was rooted in the fact that she did not know the value of who she was or how to build healthy relationships with others.

"Not knowing myself caused me to take on friendships and relationships that weren't right for me," Washington says.

Girlz Rock workshops vary from health and wellness sessions to topics like dating and relationships.

This realization became the driving force behind her decision to earn her undergraduate degree and work in educational leadership roles within the Fort Wayne Community and East Allen County School systems for 19 years where she launched various programs for girls at each school that she worked at.

After earning her master’s in educational leadership and administration, she launched Girlz Rock at Paul Harding High School in 2010. But this time, she wanted the impact of the program to go beyond herself and any one school, so she teamed up with Tabitha Ervin, Executive Director of the YMCA in Fort Wayne to make Girlz Rock a nonprofit. Since then, the volunteer-run organization, which includes both smaller school-based meetings and larger citywide events has served more than 1,500 young women in the Fort Wayne area.

"Girlz Rock is changing the lives of young people here and they're able to see themselves differently," Washington says.

Bria Merritt, 15, is a member of Girlz Rock. She says, "My experience at Girlz Rock has been amazing. I started off shy at first and they helped me outgrow my shyness and become more sociable and friendly. I love it."

Throughout the year, Girlz Rock hosts workshops with uplifting female leaders in Fort Wayne as speakers and mentors for the girls to learn from in various career paths and walks of life. One session might be with a wellness coach on easy ways to work out from home or how to identify your unique beauty. Another session might be on healthy dating and relationships.

Girlz Rock has even hosted sessions on redlining, food deserts, and other disparities in Fort Wayne, helping girls in underprivileged neighborhoods understand how these disparities came to be—and that they do not define their potential.

"Sometimes you grow up, thinking, 'This is what it is for us,' but really, the system is man-designed," Washington says. "Our kids need to be more conscious about their surroundings."

Maria Solis, 19, left, and her sister by the same name, 17, right, both attend Girlz Rock events.

Over the years, Washington has used her connections with area guidance counselors to grow Girlz Rock to include eight citywide events per year where about 200 girls attend, along with 50 of their mothers. These annual events collaborate with many other girl programs in the Fort Wayne area, giving them a common space to meet up and learn together.

About four years ago, Washington’s team added Mom’s & Mentor Sessions to Girlz Rock as well, serving the mothers of the girls she mentors and strengthening the program's impact in the family unit.

"We started bringing in moms to help them understand how their daughters see them and to give them tips on healthy dating, healthy eating, healthy mother and daughter relationships, and financial literacy," Washington says.

Yvette Merritt, left, and her daughter, Bria Merritt, both attend Girlz Rock events and have seen the power of its programming.

Along with the tangible benefits Girlz Rock has created for girls and women in Fort Wayne, Washington is most proud of the more personal, often unseen obstacles her girls have overcome to achieve success in their lives. In early March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Girlz Rock celebrated its 10-Year Anniversary where early graduates of the program, like Jessica Collins of Georgia, came back to celebrate with Washington and share their testimonies.

Collins, 26, was in one of Washington's previous girls program, Gems, at Paul Harding High School her sophomore and junior years. Her senior year, she was part of the founding Girlz Rock group that has grown into the powerful platform for confident women it is today. Collins

"Ms. Washington was a family coordinator at my high school when I first got involved with the program, and I was drawn to her," Collins says. "She very quickly became a trusted individual with whom I was able to share a lot of the things I was experiencing as a child."

From the time Collins was four years old until her freshman year of high school, her father was incarcerated, and she saw the toll it took on her mother and family.

"Going from a dual-parent household to a single-parent household, watching that whole dynamic change, seeing my mom having to work long hours and not be as present as she would have liked to be, I felt as if I had to mature at a younger age than most of my peers," Collins says.

During her high school years, her mother became ill and Collins took on the responsibility of managing the household while caring for her too. Although she maintained her grades at school, she did not feel comfortable telling anyone there about the challenges she was dealing with at home. Instead, she leaned on Washington and Girlz Rock as her safe space to share what she was going through emotionally in an environment where she knew she would be understood and supported.

"The program was an outlet and a safe haven where I could be vulnerable with myself and others," Collins says.

Girlz Rock works with girls of various ages in different capacities.

Along with her life circumstances, Girlz Rock shaped Collins’s career path as well. After graduating from Purdue University and earning her master’s in social work at the University of Houston, Collins is now working as a licensed social worker and child advocate in Georgia, serving youth and families who have been impacted by domestic violence.

In addition to her full-time career, she runs her own business in financial services which teaches individuals, families, and communities about the importance of financial literacy.

Over the years, Collins has stayed connected to Girlz Rock in Fort Wayne as well. While she was in Houston, she ran a similar program for girls from 2016-2019, carrying on Ms. Washington's legacy. To this day, Jessica continues to assist Washington in various organizational support roles remotely and the two have remained very close friends.

"I will forever be a Girlz Rock advocate and that’s solely because I know what the program has done for me and I can see what it's doing for others," Collins says. "I feel it's my due diligence to be a part of something that impacted my life because it could have easily been a different story."

Washington, second from left, hosted a ceremony for her Girlz Rock seniors at her home in 2020.

Washington says, “At the end of the day, Collins's example is what Girlz Rock is all about. Giving back and investing in the next generation to empower women to reach their full potential.”

"Those who face the greatest tests usually are the ones who will birth the greatest testimonies," she says. "I always tell people it's about the power of one. It only takes one person to speak life to you and to give you an experience that can help you see yourself differently."

Testimonies

Maria Solis, 17

"I've been in Girlz Rock for two years and it has helped me to be more comfortable with myself. The talks bring your spirit up."


Maria Solis, 19

"My experience with Girlz Rock has been really heart transforming. It has helped me to grow as an individual, to know my worth, and to not let anybody tell me I cannot sit at the table. It gives me that confidence and helps me keep pushing to achieve my goals."
 

Bria Merritt, 15

"My experience at Girlz Rock has been amazing. I started off shy at first and they helped me outgrow my shyness and become more sociable and friendly. I love it."
 

Yvette Merritt, Bria's Mother

"I love what Girlz Rock has done for my daughter. It has helped her grow and come out of her shell. I love the atmosphere, the leadership, and the accountability of the program. It's amazing."

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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