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Local nonprofit adjusts programs to empower girls, gender-diverse youth throughout pandemic

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Girls Rock Santa Barbara
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Girls and gender-expansive youth participate in the Summer 2021 Amplify Sleep Away Camp

Girls Rock Santa Barbara, or GRSB, is a local nonprofit that runs programs for girls and gender-expansive youth to be empowered through music, creativity and performance.

GRSB started about a decade ago with music workshops and day camps. The nonprofit eventually developed an extended two-week summer camp known as Amplify Sleep Away Camp.

Jess Sherwyn is the head of marketing and development for GRSB. She said the nonprofit has expanded from music to other creative tracks like production, photography and music journalism.

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Girls Rock Santa Barbara

“The whole point of any one of our programs is — we want the youth to have the leadership position,” Sherwyn said. “We want them to be at the forefront of their own decisions.”

Sherwyn said their programs are meant to encourage confidence, leadership and teamwork. She said the programs are geared toward girls and gender-diverse youth because they are often underrepresented in the music industry. Sherwyn said GRSB encourages youth to push past barriers to entry.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t see a girl in the leadership seat in your local club, in a local small business, in the music store you go to,” Sherwyn said. “You can do it and it doesn’t matter if you mess up. Just keep doing it.”

Sherwyn said the pandemic certainly created challenges for the nonprofit. She said staff put in more hours, reinvented programming and helped youth get the resources necessary for them to participate in programs virtually.

During summer 2020, GRSB had to cancel Amplify Sleep Away Camp entirely.

By summer 2021, the summer camp was able to reconvene with safety precautions in place. She said it was really beneficial for these kids to be able to get together again in person after being apart for so long.

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Girls Rock Santa Barbara

“We don’t realize how much support we get just by being in school every day with other people,” Sherwyn said. “We can hear them laughing and talking about the episode of good girls they watched last night. We’re social creatures.”

Sherwyn said a lot of their campers were heavily affected by the pandemic. One of the girls, who typically participates every year, severely struggled with her mental health.

“The pandemic really took a toll on her ability to just function and be happy,” Sherwyn said.

Sherwyn said the camper wasn’t sure she would be able to participate in the sleep away camp. But with a little push from her parents, she made it this summer and stayed.

Sherwyn said she saw a noticeable difference in the camper by the end of the two weeks.

“[It was not] like flipping a switch. But there were these moments where she was laughing and coming up with the sarcastic quips again,” Sherwyn said. “These pieces of her started shining through and coming back.”

Sherwyn said seeing what GRSB could do for just one camper was reason enough to keep as many programs going as possible. They make a big difference.

“We’re trying to keep so many different programs going because we do not want anyone to have to feel like they’re barely getting by,” Sherwyn said.

She said most of the youth have been participating in GRSB since its inception.

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Girls Rock Santa Barbara

Gracie is a 16 year old from Santa Barbara who’s been a part of the programs for seven years. She plays bass guitar, dances and plays lacrosse.

Gracie started participating in GRSB when she was just nine years old — going to after school programs, day camps and sleep away camp.

In 2020, she did a remote social media internship for the nonprofit. She was in charge of creating the posts for the GRSB instagram all summer.

Gracie said GRSB has a special place in her heart and she gets something new out of it every year.

“I remember the first time I went when I was nine,” Gracie said. “I came out with a lot of confidence, which I didn’t have as much as before I came in.”

Gracie said GRSB helped her develop important communication skills. She said she often takes the lead on projects but this year she learned how to take a step back and really work as a team.

She said it’s a program that teaches people to be unapologetically themselves and she would encourage anyone to go.

“It changes your perspective on yourself,” Gracie said. “It’s always going to be fun and you’re always going to come out as a whole new person in the best way possible.”

Sherwyn said if the youth get anything out of Girls Rock Santa Barbara, she hopes it’s that they know it’s important to be brave, not perfect.

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