Before she interned at the White House, founded her own nonprofit and earned two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Camille McGirt was bullied on the school playground.
She remembers what it felt like to be a young girl struggling with her self-esteem, so after volunteering with former first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, McGirt had an idea: she would start her own nonprofit to help middle school girls gain confidence and healthy habits.
“I wanted to take that message of a healthy lifestyle and make it tangible for girls back home in my community of Durham,” said McGirt, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health policy in 2013. “I was inspired by being around all these change agents and people who are really invested in social good, and I wanted to do something in that space.”
While they were still undergraduate students at Carolina, McGirt and her sister Rachel founded Healthy Girls Save the World, an organization dedicated to helping young girls in the Triangle achieve healthy minds, bodies and relationships.
There was only one problem.
“I had no idea how to run a program or how to create a public health intervention,” McGirt said. “I just knew I was passionate.”
So they started small. The McGirt sisters launched HGSW in 2011, and in 2012 they hosted a one-week summer camp in Memorial Hall for about 25 local girls. They competed in the Carolina Challenge, an entrepreneurship contest at UNC-Chapel Hill, and won seed money to keep their venture afloat.
Soon they were identifying Healthy Girls pioneers — female students at Carolina who believed in the project and who would later serve as organizers for annual summer camps and after-school programs.
A few years later, McGirt returned to UNC-Chapel Hill for a master’s degree in health behavior and gained the program management skills to grow HGSW further.
“I’ve learned Carolina’s entrepreneurial ecosystem very well, and it’s been extremely transformational and critical to our success,” she said.
This summer, HGSW hosted its first two-week summer experience for more than 50 local girls, co-organized by two other UNC-Chapel Hill graduates. The young campers met athletes from Carolina’s swim and rugby teams, took Zumba and kickboxing lessons from instructors at the Student Recreation Center, and created trinket boxes laser cut with words like “strong,” “smart,” and “beautiful” at the Murray Hall makerspace.
“Being a girl is hard,” McGirt said, “and being a young girl is really, reallyhard. We’re trying to create safe spaces where girls can really feel comfortable being themselves and become happy and healthy.”
Girls who took part in this year’s summer experience created vision boards with mental, physical and relational wellness goals. McGirt said the idea is to instill healthy habits early on so the girls can continue to thrive as adults.
The HGSW summer experience and after-school programs are open to any girl, but McGirt said she hopes to especially challenge the health care disparities that affect low-income and African-American communities.
“We want to let them set foot on a college campus and give them role models of other women who look like them, so they’ll know they can do this too.”