When she started sixth grade, Sofia Vazquez entered a world she was scarcely prepared for, one that taught her an important lesson: Sometimes the people you thought were your friends will stab you in the back.

Vazquez, now 13 and confidently starting her eighth grade year, remembers the fear and frustration of her first middle school days, but she also remembers a positive force of change that pulled her from that dark place: Girls Actively Participating.

“I went through a period of my life with people who didn’t bring me up,” Sofia told the News&Guide. “GAP showed me what real friendships were.”

The empowering nonprofit has for nearly 25 years taught valley youth what it means to find your voice, build a supportive community and try new things.

On a recent September afternoon more than a dozen of those middle school girls donned elbow pads and helmets to carve their way across the high school pavement. The joint event, put on by GAP and Carving The Future, was the perfect example of girls coming together to realize their own strength.

“Whenever we’re trying something new we’re overcoming fear,” GAP Executive Director Elly Garrett said.” We’re being brave. And we’re connecting in a different way.”

It was 11-year-old Betsy Tetenman’s first time on a skateboard, and she was quite grateful for the two volunteers holding each arm.

“I’m nervous! All I can think is I’ll fall on my face and die, which probably won’t happen,” she said with a nervous laugh.

Rocking a “Love ya self” T-shirt, which Tetenman said reminded her of her friends, the young skater was confidently riding solo by the end of the session.

As she watched the girls suit up for their inaugural rides, Garrett sported a hand-beaded necklace and bracelet — relics from her nonprofit’s summer session at Teton Valley Ranch Camp, where 60 girls tried their hand at archery, horseback riding, and arts and crafts.

Thanks to subsidies, GAP was able to provide low-income families access to an otherwise unattainable camping experience.

In the past few years the nonprofit has expanded its operation to serve 250 girls in the Jackson Hole community, including about 90 Latina youth, and Teton Valley, Idaho residents.

“And we do it on a shoestring budget,” Garrett said. “My office is my kitchen table.”

Like other valley nonprofits, GAP relies on grants, philanthropy and partnerships to keep its operation running. This summer, girls received meals and enrichment from Hole Food Rescue’s Sprout mobile. In September they toured Lindsay Linton Buk’s immersive “Women in Wyoming” portraits at the Center for the Arts. The nonprofit is also working with Teton County School District No. 1 and the Community Safety Network to discuss mindfulness and healthy relationships.

“Friend groups are evolving and changing from elementary school, and they’re meeting a lot of new friends,” Garrett said. “What I find is that middle school girls are paralyzed by fear.

“Sometimes they may not take on a challenge because there’s this pressure from our sociocultural environment to be perfect. Our culture teaches girls to be smart, but not too smart. Pretty, but not too pretty. Loud, but not too loud. Don’t be overbearing. Please other people. And put other people’s needs before your own.”

The overwhelming confluence of social cues comes at a time of growth and change, Garrett said, which makes it difficult for girls to feel supported and find their place. It’s the reason Sofia found herself in a group of “fake friends,” and it’s one reason girls like Betsy may never pick up a skateboard.

GAP is trying to change that narrative by building an open-minded, accessible community. While COVID-19 has roiled many in-person activities, GAP managed to increase its programming during the pandemic. It partnered with counselors, the Teton Literacy Center and Teton Youth and Family Services to support students who weren’t showing up to class, and it created online events to keep youth engaged. In doing so Garrett and her team helped combat the isolation many students were feeling.

Garrett remains concerned about external factors like smartphones and social media. Facebook has come under fire in recent weeks for not publishing the impact that Instagram is having on youth’s mental health.

For Garrett, the impact is clear: Social media prioritizes objectifying photos of unattainable physiques rather than inclusive messages of body positivity.

“We just really encourage girls to stand in their truth with bravery and integrity and try not to get so consumed with all the external validation that social media offers,” she said.

But the pitfalls of Instagram are just one concern. Gender-based violence, low self-esteem, eating disorders and isolation continue to hurt girls, Garrett said.

Part of the GAP approach includes posing tough questions and encouraging honest dialogue. Leaders will ask girls (and adults, too) if they’ve been bullied, if they bully others, if they are quick to point out their body’s flaws, if they sometimes become defensive.

“When you start to begin that self-reflection, it’s super eye opening,” Garrett said.

And it can also show participants that they’re not alone.

“Whenever we’re trying something new we’re overcoming fear. We’re being brave. And we’re connecting in a different way.” Elly Garrett Girls Actively participating

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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