According to research, in North Dakota, girls struggle with their mental health at nearly double the rates than boys do, and their relationship with their self-esteem is highest in third grade and plummets to a low in sixth grade. BIO Girls provides mentorship, an inclusive environment and valuable life skills to empower these young girls.
Missy Heilman is the founder and executive director of the local nonprofit, BIO Girls. The organization reaches girls in grades second through sixth in four states, focusing across the upper midwest, and working on adding programming to more cities across North Dakota. Before BIO Girls was what it is today, it was simply an idea, or more, a desire Missy had for her own children.
“At the time, I was a mom of a toddler and a preschooler, and I became very sensitive to the messages that our girls receive about being someone other than who they were truly made to be,” she explained.
Missy found herself driven to volunteer somewhere in the community, but when she reached out to different organizations, she never heard back. She decided if she wanted to find something to give her kids the mentorship, tools and encouragement she knew would help them, she would have to create something herself.
Missy remembers the great mentors and the positive mental and physical impact athletic sports had on her growing up, and she used those experiences to start developing what would become BIO Girls. After reaching out to her family’s youth director at their church, she gathered a small team to help her build programming. BIO, or Beautiful Inside and Out, Girls started its work in 2013.
“That first year, honestly, we were shooting from the hip. And after each session, we’d say, what are we going to talk about next week. The structure of BIO girls has not changed from day one, but what has changed is that we’ve invested heavily in the curriculum development and the research that backs us and now have 10 employees that are running the back end of the business to make it all happen,” Missy explained.
Although it began here in Fargo, there were requests for BIO Girls to take the program to other cities after only the first year.
“At the time, I was still working a full-time job, was pregnant with my third kid and had no extra time but said, okay,” Missy said. “I knew that it was maybe the pivotal point where if we were to grow in scale this was it, this was an opportunity, even though in no way, shape or form was I prepared to do that—but it forced my hand.”
Missy may have felt like this was a large project at the time, but over the years her decision would eventually lead her to apply for official 501 (c)(3) status, leave her full-time job to focus on the non-profit and hire employees.
WAYS TO HELP:
Volunteer as a Site Director:
Volunteer to lead a BIO Girls site in your community! Facilitate the program with turn key lessons, coordinate the 12- session season and ensure a positive experience for girls in your community.
Volunteer as a Mentor:
Have direct impact on girls in the program by volunteering to mentor participants in the weekly sessions. lead the small group immersion time and prepare for a 5k run alongside your small group.
Join the Believers Circle:
A community of individuals who not only believe in putting an end to the self-esteem crisis in adipescent girls, but are the first to take action to help BIO Girls grow through monetary generosity on a yearly basis.
for it. And now? Through their 12-session program, BIO Girls reaches young girls in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. Their 67 total sites are all run by volunteers and feature large group lessons, small group immersion and noncompetitive physical activity in their curriculum.
“In 2022, we will have over 1,000 volunteers bringing our program to life all across the upper Midwest,” Missy said.
The program is researchbased, both the curriculum and the non-competitive exercise portion. Right now, they offer exercise through running, CrossFit and yoga. They are able to offer these year-round by working with people and businesses in the community with spaces where the girls can do the activity. Missy said they are working to offer self-defense and cheertumbling programs, as well as an art-centric program, as they’ve seen research yielding similar benefits between physical activity and art.
Missy said they often get questions as to why their focus is on the demographic that it is.
“Self-esteem is a very big indicator of behavioral and emotional problems in our youth, girls with low self-esteem are 75% more likely to engage in destructive behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders, risky relationships and even suicide,” she explained. “So we’re working with girls at a time when self-esteem is typically plummeting.”
When it’s the most vital point for uplifting and maintaining their selfesteem, the girls who go through the program will learn and understand skills to help them “navigate social situations that oftentimes chip away at their self-esteem.”
As BIO Girls know, research is important and helps to understand why something is. Here is a story about a young BIO Girl, Denise, and her mentor Heather so you can understand what BIO Girls is.
“Denise has a skeletal disorder, and is shorter than most girls her age and can’t work her body as hard. That said, she gave it her all every week and was an inspiration to us all. She and Heather became fast friends and walked/ran most sessions together. With the race upcoming, Heather knew Denise was getting worried about completing it because she wasn’t as far along in the training as the other girls. Heather worked with Denise and came up with the idea they would scooter a couple portions of the race, and run the other portions. This would allow Denise to start and finish with her squad and feel included in the whole race. I had tears in my eyes (as did many others) watching Heather and Denise cross the finish line on race day. Denise’s family was so supportive and grateful as this was a huge accomplishment for Denise (she shocked them as well)! Watching Heather and Denise throughout the season was a prime example of the value of BIO Girls and the inclusivity of this program. Truly heartwarming!”
During the pandemic, just as many others had to do, BIO Girls moved their 600 participant programming online. But, she said amidst the darkness that surrounded families during that time, parents told her BIO Girls was a light.
“Not only did we survive, but we thrived. And since, our growth has continued because COVID has amplified the mental health issues of our kids,” Missy said. “I think that is one of the reasons that our growth has continued to be so impressive year after year, it’s a greater need now than ever because of the pandemic.”
Looking forward, Missy said BIO Girls has increased their capacity for 2022 by 70% over 2021. They are looking for volunteers to run their programs in six new cities across North Dakota, Hillsboro, Larimore, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Williston and Valley City. They have determined they want to offer their program in these cities as they are geographical areas where they do not yet have a presence. Expanding outside of Fargo and further into the state will help BIO Girls meet their goal—to reach one in six North Dakota girls by 2025.
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS PEOPLE CAN CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR CAUSE?
“Volunteers, of course. Funding, we’re a nonprofit so about 50% of our funding comes directly from donors. And then, just advocacy. Our program has grown organically over the last 10 years, we haven’t spent any time or money on recruitment efforts in any state, and yet, we continue to grow year over year. That’s because of our network of passionate advocates who continue to share our message and the impact that our program is having.”
Learn more at biogirls.org