Feb. 16—At her first varsity basketball practice at Frederica Academy, eighth-grader Sophia Price demonstrated her innate confidence and leadership capacity.
Near the end of practice, her coach, Sarah Helder, asked for one player to step up and attempt to make a free throw shot. If the player missed the shot, the entire team would run.
Price, among the youngest on the team, volunteered and sank the shot.
"I always just like to see who's going to step up and do it, especially the first week," Helder recalled. "... And she drained it, nothing but net, with confidence."
This moment stands out to Helder months later as one that showcases Price's strength of character. It's also one that illustrates why Price was recently named a student leader for the new Girls Empowering Movement program, sponsored by the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation.
The Girls Empowering Movement program is a five-year statewide initiative to improve middle school girls' physical activity by spreading positivity and boosting girls' self-esteem.
The initiative was spurred by research that showed a sharp decline in the aerobic capacity of girls as they grow older, decreasing from 51 percent in fifth grade to 31 percent by their senior year of high school. The data also indicated a gender disparity in fitness levels among middle school girls and boys.
The Girls Empowering Movement program is a collaborative initiative led by HealthMPowers in partnership with Boys and Girls Clubs of Georgia, Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia and Wolf Wellness Lab at the University of West Georgia. The organizations are working together to ensure that the voice of girls drives all program elements and keeps them at the forefront.
The GEM program aims to empower and engage 18,000 girls from 120 sites across Georgia and will be implemented in schools, Girl Scout Troops and Boys and Girls Clubs starting in the fall.
Price is among only 14 middle school girls from across the state selected to serve on the GEM Leadership Team. The girls have been working closely with HealthMPowers staff during the design phase of the program and collectively decided on the name — Girls Empowering Movement — because they felt it represented the strength, value and confidence they hope to inspire in their peers.
Price said the program focuses on positivity and encouragement by bringing girls together to inspire one another to be active. Increasing self-confidence among young teenage girls is also an important goal of the initiative, she said.
Her experience playing sports, like basketball and soccer, has helped Price develop her own self-confidence.
"It helps a lot because of the competition," she said. "I think of it as we may lose but most of the time it's a win in our book because we tried our hardest."
Price enrolled at Frederica Academy this school year, and she quickly proved to be an emerging leader on the campus, said Leigh Toomey, middle school director at Frederica.
"Not only is she a good athlete, but she's just an all around good individual," Toomey said. "Right away, she kind of had an understated leadership style with the eighth-grade group. They certainly respect her and often look to her for guidance in the school. She's really strong academically, and obviously she's a stellar athlete."
Middle school is a critical time in a young person's development, Toomey said, and a program like GEM will hopefully be beneficial to girls in the community.
"What a great opportunity for us to get girls in middle school to come into their own as a person," Toomey said.
Helder agreed, noting that teenagers face many barriers to strong self-esteem in today's social media age. A motto among her student athletes is "Comparison is the death of joy," she said, and activities like school sports or initiatives like GEM can play an important role in helping young people, especially girls, gain confidence.
"You have to be careful playing that comparison game, and I think it's important for girls to learn how to stay active, learn about their body and learn about how we're all different shapes, sizes, heights, weights and it's not a bad thing," Helder said. "It's a good thing."
Price is an ideal ambassador to promote these kinds of positive values, Helder said, which she's proven since arriving at Frederica and becoming a student leader both on and off the playing field.
That first day at practice, Helder and others on the team were impressed not only by Price's athletic skill but also by her ability to step up and be a leader.
"To have that confidence, to stand up and not think about what seniors might think about you as an eighth grader, just shows her character and who she is," Helder said.