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Girls' leadership program faces an uncertain future

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As candles are lighted tomorrow during the annual vesper service of the Canadian Girls in Training, supporters are wondering whether the winds of change are about to extinguish the nearly century-old church-run leadership program for girls.

"We're trying to re-envision how the values and gifts of the CGIT program could be offered in other ways," says Rev. Nancy Wilson, a local minister who attended CGIT in her hometown of Springville, Ont.

Established in 1915 by the YWCA and Christian denominations such as Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, CGIT is an organization in decline attempting to find new footing in the 21st century. Winnipeg's only remaining group folded last spring due to a lack of volunteers.

"We were the last church (in Winnipeg) to have one," says Karen Ilchena, 42, a leader of the former CGIT group at Transcona Memorial United Church and a graduate of the program herself. "Currently we do not have a group, which is quite sad."

CGIT alumnae hold their annual Christmas season vesper service at 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5 at Harrow United Church, at the corner of Harrow Street and Mulvey Avenue.

This service is a sign of hope something new can arise out of a program that has shaped and mentored generations of Canadian girls, says Rev. Teresa Moysey of Harrow United Church.

"It's to keep the tradition alive, especially for the younger ones who will carry on from this point," says Moysey, 58, who attended CGIT in her hometown of Regina. "They see this as a place to make connections."

Aimed at girls aged 12 to 17, right now only 2,000 girls are involved in 150 chapters across the country, according to the CGIT website (www.cgit.ca).

The Manitoba chapter of the organization still runs an annual two-week girls' summer program at Camp Brereton in the Whiteshell, says longtime board member Pat Finlayson, although it wasn't offered in 2010 due to lack of volunteers.

"It makes me feel very sad there aren't mid-week groups because that fuels enthusiasm for camps," she says, adding a camping program is planned for 2011.

For Kate Sjoberg, attending weekly CGIT meetings at Westworth United Church as a teenager laid the foundation for her later roles in university student leadership and community development.

"Those were some of my first opportunities to talk about feminism in a structured and safe environment," says Sjoberg, 27, former president of the University of Winnipeg Students' Association who now works for a West End community organization.

"It (CGIT) creates an environment where you can take some risks in expressing your own ideas."

Girls were encouraged to plan events and learned to chair meetings, write minutes, and keep financial reports, says Wilson, 40, now the presbytery minister for the Winnipeg Presbytery of the United Church of Canada.

"For me, one of the big things was the opportunity to take on a leadership role," she says. "I learned practical skills like working with others and how to program an event for our group."

As well as those leadership skills, girls were shaped by the values of CGIT, which focused on seeking truth, cherishing truth, serving others and knowing God, says Finlayson.

"I've found it very fulfilling," says Finlayson, who first went to CGIT camp in 1948.

"I know my values and my relationship to God has been set through CGIT."

Wilson acknowledges CGIT has had a significant role for many girls and women, but says the organization can't hold on to old ways just for the sake of tradition. She says summer camp may be the place to develop the next generation of female leaders for the Christian church and the community.

"How do we hold on to some of those things, but share them in a new way?" she says. "We have this camp available so let's focus our time and energy that way."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2010 H13

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