Once a young girl who battled with her weight and low self-esteem, Sarah Hillware, ESIA BA ’13, used her passions and personal experiences to create Girls Health Ed, an organization designed to target some of the systematic obstacles that adolescent girls face worldwide.
After becoming self-empowered as a young girl, Sarah became a dedicated student and eventually attended GW, where she was an international affairs major with a concentration in global public health. As a GW student she participated in a medical mission trip to rural Ecuador, worked with underserved families at Children’s National Medical Center, and held multiple research assistant positions on campus.
During her junior year at GW, Sarah was named America’s Miss D.C., a title that provided an opportunity to further engage the local community.
“After being awarded the America’s Miss D.C. title my junior year at GW, I made a commitment to visit schools in the D.C. area on Fridays during the hours I had off from work and classes,” says Sarah, who collaborated with established public health and advocacy organizations to provide information to K-12 students and their parents while completing her year of service as America’s Miss D.C., a requirement each contestant has at the state and national levels.
This year of service—paired with her classes in public health and time spent conducting research on health education in urban and rural cities in the U.S., Kenya, and India (an experience partially made possible by a small grant from the Elliott School)—gave Sarah the knowledge and inspiration that would turn her passions into a sustainable program. In her junior year at GW, Sarah assembled the founding team of what would eventually become Girls Health Ed.
Sarah emphasizes that there is an essential need in D.C. and other areas throughout the U.S. and abroad to educate young girls about their bodies. “After months of regular visits to schools during our pilot program, we decided to take it a step further and envisioned creating a project that would be sustained long-term and would cover a wide spectrum of health issues, including nutrition, body image, physical activity, personal care/hygiene, and reproductive health,” she notes.
A community-based organization, Girls Health Ed works to educate girls between the ages of 8 and 17. To build the curriculum, Sarah assembled a team of trusted advisors, including her Elliott School classmate Marisa Westbrook, ESIA BA ’13, who still serves on organization’s board today.
“In the beginning, there was only a handful of us,” says Sarah. “We spent our weekends and evenings in meetings and on conference calls drafting what would eventually become the initial pilot curriculum.”
The curriculum focuses on the core ideals of nutrition and body image: physical fitness, personal care and hygiene, and reproductive health. Experts train volunteer ‘teaching fellows’ who then teach workshops in schools and community centers. Through her program, Sarah hopes that girls will have better opportunities to rise above their circumstances
“Girls tend to drop out of sports due to poor body image, and 50% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight,” she says. “Surprisingly, even in the U.S., many girls from low-income families often times struggle to afford to purchase menstrual hygiene products, leading to decreased school attendance and performance. Many girls obtain reproductive health information from family and friends, which can be inaccurate and lead to STDs and unplanned pregnancy.”
Now in its third year, Girls Health Ed has expanded to New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and Kenya, and many other GW alumni have found a shared passion for Sarah’s organization. In addition to Sarah and Marisa Westbrook, Anna Blue, GSEHD MA Ed&HD ’08, and Melissa Jane Kronfeld, ESIA BA ’04, are board members of Girls Health Ed, making the advisory body 50 percent Colonials.
The organization continues to grow and strive for a better future for girls; one where, in Sarah’s words, “policymakers, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals, and international development practitioners include girls as decision-makers, ask girl-centered questions, and design solutions with the day-to-day lives of girls and women in mind.”
“We have learned so much from the girls,” says Sarah about the young women she meets every day. “I think the most important thing we’ve learned is to always keep learning. Our education doesn’t stop when we complete college or graduate school. The girls challenge us daily. If you asked one of our 37 Teaching Fellows who conduct Girls Health Ed after-school workshops, they would probably tell you that the girls we serve are some of the brightest and most inspiring people on the planet. They truly do make us better people.”