Samari Wilson never could have imagined the life-changing experiences that lay in store when, as a fifth grader, enrolled in a club that Girls Inc. of Alameda County was offering youngsters who wanted to explore the ecosystem.
She went on field trips that summer, became acquainted with the concept of photosynthesis, and upon starting middle school joined an extracurricular program that the nonprofit held at her school in East Oakland.
In the years that followed Wilson sampled a smorgasbord of educational fun from testing educational software for children to camping trips, where she learned to start a fire, pitch a tent, identify toxic plants, and make cheese from the goats she milked on a nearby farm.
By the time Wilson graduated from high school she had learned to swim, spoken before the Oakland City Council on behalf of a building project benefiting Girls Inc. of Alameda County, attended workshops to prepare for a college entrance exam, tried her hand at glassblowing and swung from a trapeze.
“It gave me an opportunity to see my life beyond Oakland,” said Wilson, now 29, who is pursuing a marketing degree to become a medical sales representative at the biotechnology company where she works.
And expanding horizons is exactly what Girls Inc. of Alameda County aims to do. The Oakland nonprofit has spent the last 65 years equipping girls in grades K-12 with the book knowledge and life skills to overcome the obstacles to success they often encounter because of their sex, race and limited economic means.
There are a lot of gaps to fill: An estimated 1,200 students from about 75 schools around Alameda County and beyond receive Girls Inc. of Alameda County’s help learning how to dream big — all of it free, according to the organization’s 2021-22 impact report.
The vast majority are minorities from low-income families within the Oakland Unified School District, where 14 elementary and middle school campuses host Girls Inc. of Alameda County’s afterschool activities.
They are designed to defy the grim statistics that the organization has compiled: Four out of five Oakland third graders in low-income households are not reading as well as they should at that age, and one-third of all girls in the city don’t graduate from high school.
Kids enrolled in Girls Inc. of Alameda County’s extracurricular programs learn math, too—about how fractions work through music. And jump roping and fashioning kaleidoscopes from Pringles cans are creative ways of introducing them to the X- and Y-axis and geometric patterns, respectively.
Middle-schoolers discover the relationship between electronic devices and Wi-Fi networks; high school students learn to read and write HTML and use their new coding skills to build websites or design video games.
In addition to on-campus enrichment programs, Girls Inc. of Alameda County provides a wealth of learning at its headquarters in downtown Oakland.
Hundreds of teens come to Simpson Center for Girls seeking academic coaching as well as the chance for personal growth and leadership, all of which support the organization’s goal of encouraging girls to become capable, confident young women.
The mentors these students encounter through Girls Inc. of Alameda County open their eyes to the vast realm of life’s possibilities that beckons.
Students meet women whose degrees in science, technology, mathematics and engineering have led them to careers at companies like CISCO Systems Inc. and Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
They also explore their options in the workplace through four-week paid summer internships with the likes of Google, Deloitte, the commercial general contractor DPR Construction, and the Port of Oakland.
There have been field trips to Tesla, Inc., Chevron and Oakland Superior Court, where girls attended a trial, met with a female judge in her chamber and had lunch with other women attorneys.
Because of Girls Inc. of Alameda County’s emphasis on the value of a college degree, staff members help students fill out applications to schools and prep for admissions tests.
A few years ago, teens traveled to southern California for a two-day sweep of University of California and California State University campuses, and last summer a group visited Sacramento State University, UC Merced and University of the Pacific in Stockton.
“We expose girls to things they wouldn’t naturally be exposed to,” said Chief Development Officer Jeri Boomgaarden, adding that most of Girls Inc. of Alameda County’s graduates are the first in their families to get a university education. “Once they have exposure there are no barriers to their achievement.”
But the activities go beyond academics.
A financial adviser visited the center last year to speak about the importance of establishing a budget and good credit and exhorted the girls to get a jump start on investing.
Girls learn soft skills such as how to make smart decisions by weighing the risks and thinking critically about the messages that media outlets promulgate.
There’s also plenty of room for recreation: Girls go mountain biking on trails in Marin and Richmond, practice sportsmanship on the basketball court and work out in the center’s fully equipped gym.
In addition, the facility has a kitchen where they learn the ABCs of good nutrition in cooking classes that promote farmers markets over convenience store junk food.
Girls Inc. of Alameda County made all the difference to Nelzy Gonzalez-Zaragoza.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, the 24-year-old Oakland native attended schools that didn’t offer music instruction or Advanced Placement classes.
When the time for applying to colleges rolled around, “I realized I was definitely super behind,” Gonzalez-Zaragoza said.
But she had spent a good many years in Girls Inc. of Alameda County, which compensated for her no-frills public school’s education: As a high school senior, she worked on creating a fitness curriculum for the center and received help writing speeches that she delivered at some of the organization’s fundraising luncheons.
“That was a big one,” Gonzalez-Zaragoza said of the public speaking experience. “It gave me a voice.”
Girls Inc. of Alameda County provided some of the scholarship money she needed to attend Cal Berkeley, where in 2021 Gonzalez-Zaragoza became the first in her family to earn a college degree.
Her life now wouldn’t have been the same without the nonprofit, she says.
“The situations that Girls Inc. has put me in have motivated me to do more — to push myself to be a better human, a better advocate,” said Gonzalez-Zaragoza, who has come full circle as an employee of a UC Berkeley constellation of programs that offers a variety of counseling services and financial aid to help others like her succeed in their studies.