Annika Jackson wants to be an actress.
The ninth-grader has participated in a new program, a DreamLAB Club, which helps her and other girls envision life goals and provide real-world mechanisms for achieving them. Annika sees the stage in her future.
The downloadable program is the work of Dena Patton, an Ahwatukee resident who is CEO and co-founder of The Girls Rule Foundation, a nonprofit that helps teen girls in middle and high schools build leadership, self-confidence and futures through peer-led after-school clubs. The other founders are Laura Anderson, deceased, Stephanie Millner and Jenn Kaye.
Girls Rule is one of two charities that have been designated by the Festival of Lights Committee to receive a portion of the proceeds from last weekend’s Kick-Off Party.
Also selected was the Ahwatukee Foothills YMCA Outreach Program for Ahwatukee Residents. Y OPAS provides transportation for senior citizens to medical appointments, shopping destinations and other local places that they cannot get to on their own.
Patton has a clear idea of what she wants Girls Rule to accomplish.
“Girls with dreams become women with vision, and we want to equip and empower as many girls as possible so that they can become our next generation of leaders and world changers in whatever industry or role they pursue,” said Patton, who lives with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. They have been Ahwatukee residents for four years.
“Over the last eight years, we have found that girls are able and willing to step into leadership if they are equipped with the right tools, direction and structure, and DreamLAB does exactly that,” added Patton, who has coauthored three books for women and is finishing another.
The program is working, apparently, for Annika Jackson.
A participant in the Pre IB Program at Desert Mountain High School, she participated in a DreamLAB pilot in 2015 when she was a seventh grader at BASIS Scottsdale.
After attending the annual Shine Brightly Summit in 2015 given by The Girls Rule Foundation, she was one of four Valley girls to receive $500 through a Brilliant, Beautiful and Bold award.
“The pilot taught me about stating a dream, then gave me steps and procedures in small steps how to make that dream happen,” Annika said.
Pursuing her goal, she tries out for every role she feels is a good fit, her mother, Jody, explained. “DreamLABs is also all about supporting each other in reaching these goals,” she added, noting that the girls provide each other with positive feedback no matter how small.
Each DreamLAB costs $59 for 12 weeks of downloadable material (dreamLABforgirls.org), Patton said. The 12 programs include teamwork, communication, goal-setting and having a vision/dream.
The 90-minute meetings comprise three elements: a dream circle, in which girls work on a short and long-term dreams together; a weekly lab, during which they are introduced to one of the 12 leadership lessons and discuss it; and an open lab, when they work on their individual dreams, a shared community project chosen in week 11 or host a guest speaker.
The leaders are given short weekly encouragement/leadership videos, and each of the club members receives a pink bracelet as a gift from the foundation.
Clubs must have from five to 11 girls, and any girl can start one in her neighborhood or school as an after-school club approved by the front office.
“This is a leadership club, so we are giving them a platform to lead, versus being run by an adult,” Patton said. “It promotes teamwork and giving back to others.”
She emphasized that the clubs are run by girls for girls, although each must have an adult sponsor who attends all meetings. Patton also communicates with the DreamLAB leaders through a mobile app and keeps in touch through email as well.
“Youth development is important, especially now that our youth has access to so much media, and they have so many distractions which pull them off focus from their bright futures. Programs like ours help girls with the social, emotional and leadership skills they need to stand on their own as young women.”
A Phoenix native through her maternal grandparents who came to the Valley from Chicago in the 1950s, Patton graduated from Sunnyslope High and then lived eight years in New York City where she owned two successful businesses. She found her calling in 1997 to work with women and girls after a minor stroke at 27.
Returning to the Valley, she partnered with three friends who also had a passion to support girls to offer workshops in the East Valley.
That organization now offers five empowerment and leadership programs, including a one-hour workshop, the DreamLABs and an eight-day summer leadership camp.
The girls enjoy the programs for various reasons, Patton explained. They love the leadership platform it provides, that it’s inspirational and an opportunity to make friends, make their futures –– and make the world better.
“I believe girls change the world, and I know from my own youth that when you have a lack of mentorship, life skills and leadership you can really struggle. But when you teach them empowerment and leadership skills, they become unstoppable.”