New Jersey camp inspires girls to think big

Girlblazers participants Kayleesha Rosario (left) and Ceannie Rosario watch fellow campers show inventions. Camp is held at the Mount Laurel institute named for suffragist Alice Paul.
Girlblazers participants Kayleesha Rosario (left) and Ceannie Rosario watch fellow campers show inventions. Camp is held at the Mount Laurel institute named for suffragist Alice Paul.
Posted: July 05, 2010

Ten-year-old Zoe Dillard, a 4-foot-tall self-proclaimed scientist, speaks confidently about a woman's role in the world and her plans to save the planet.

The soon-to-be sixth grader from Camden is seated at a wooden picnic table at a summer camp set up in the spirit of New Jersey suffragist Alice Paul.

Like Paul, Zoe is determined to make a difference.

"I love animals, and I think the oil spill will still affect us when I am an adult," she said. "When I'm a scientist, I am going to create an invention to help the animals and save the world."

Alice Paul (1885-1977) spent her life fighting for women's equality and freedom. She drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, founded the National Women's Party, and helped to obtain women's right to vote in America.

She was also jailed, was physically abused, and went on hunger strikes to prove she meant business.

The Alice Paul Institute's Girlblazers, a weeklong program that inspires girls to stand up for their beliefs and work toward goals, is held at Paul's former residence in Mount Laurel.

On a recent morning, Zoe was among 20 or so campers seated on Paul's childhood porch working intently on ideas to solve global issues. The girls had just finished fifth grade at Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School or St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral School.

Dressed in maroon LEAP basketball shorts and a Camden Riversharks T-shirt, Zoe concentrated on her "invention." Using neon-colored pipe cleaners, empty tissue boxes, and glittery green fabric, she worked on creating a device that would reduce human reliance on technology by allowing people to read minds across the world.

Fellow camper Soriya Huynh, an aspiring chef, built a robot that encourages daily exercise.

"If you don't get up and exercise when it tells you to, it chases you outside with its pinchers," said the St. Joe's student, pointing to her pint-size machine with the torso of a sideways tissue box, arms of neon-blue pipe cleaners, and pinchers of wooden clothespins.

Pragya Nandini, a camp counselor and a junior at George Washington University, said she believes it is important for the girls to realize that even at their age, they can make a difference.

She said when she was a child, she hoped to one day be president of the United States. While that dream has morphed into an aspiration to become an economist, Nandini said she holds on to that save-the-world complex.

"It's not just a 40-year-old woman with a degree that can change the world," Nandini said. "Every woman, every person, has the power."

For each day of the camp, which ended last week, the girls learned about a different woman and used their creativity to follow her lead. This day, the model was Ellen Ochoa, an inventor and astronaut who fulfilled her childhood dream of joining NASA despite many rejections and disappointments.

Many of the campers from impoverished Camden may share similar struggles to meet their goals, said Anna Preston, the Girlblazers camp director. But she believes all children have the potential to be leaders if their talents and creativity are fostered.

"Creativity is the meat and potatoes behind this camp," Preston said. "Fifth grade is a good age because socially they are changing. Cliques are starting to be formed, and we want them to have a foundation to help make the right decisions."

According to LEAP Academy University Charter School's website, Camden children must constantly manage financial limitations, which puts a burden on all other facets of their lives. More than 45 percent of Camden children live in poverty.

The director of leadership programs at the Alice Paul Institute, Dana Dabek-Milstein, said this was the third year of the camp, which in the past ran for two weeks. This year, financial issues forced the institute to cut back to a week, Dabek-Milstein said. The camp remains free and survives on state grants.

"We'd rather cut days than add a cost and inadvertently cut girls who wouldn't be able to afford it," Dabek-Milstein said.

It is important, she said, for girls to have strong women as role models to show them it's possible to overcome obstacles and make changes, whether that role model is a camp counselor, a parent, or Alice Paul.

Zoe said her grandmother and mother are her role models because they are strong women and support her love for science and reading.

"My grandma always tells me, 'If a man could do it, then a woman can, too,' " Zoe said.


Contact staff writer Elisa Lala at 856-779-3970 or elala@phillynews.com.

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