Back when I was growing up, doing anything like a girl was an insult. These days though, girls and boys are learning that women are strong and capable and that doing things like a girl can make you pretty successful. One of the main people responsible for changing the rhetoric, is Dr. Kimberly Clay. Dr. Kim is the CEO and Founder of Play Like a Girl!®. She works seemingly non-stop to make America a healthier place by focusing on some of its most precious assets, girls and women. She has used her personal experiences and professional expertise to build an organization that is truly poised to change the world.
Dr. Kim, tell our readers what Play Like a Girl!® (PLAG) is.
Formed in 2004, we’re a 100% volunteer-led, 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Nashville, TN. Our mission is to advance the health and empowerment of women and girls. We do that through sport and physical activity, specifically through educational programs, PLAG Clubs and PLAG Pop-up Play Days for girls and women. Our programs use the Go Girl Go Curriculum.
Over 10 years of existence is a long time. How did you decide to start PLAG and how has it progressed over the past 12 years?
Initially I founded the organization to educate, empower and enlighten women to adopt healthy lifestyles. We started with raising awareness about chronic disease and educating individuals about their risks and risk factors related to heart disease, diabetes, HIV, obesity and cancer. We realized that we were educating, but we weren’t seeing shifts in behaviors. We were trying to combat the problems too late.
So in 2010, we shifted to after-school programs that focused on preventing chronic disease in middle school girls. Girls drop out of sports and physical activity at twice the rate of boys before the age of 14. We try to intervene during the years when a girl begins to lose interest or face increased barriers to participation in sports and physical activity. Since inactivity leads to overweight and obesity, the precursors to all of the chronic diseases we were addressing initially, we are trying to prevent inactivity in the first place.
Initially we engaged girls in a single sport, tennis. But in 2014, a report concluded that low-income, minority and girl youths faced greater barriers to participation in sports. The recommendation was to approach sports at the middle school age from a sampling perspective; offer a variety of sports so children find a sport that they love. Then they will be more likely to stick with that sport into high school and despite the obstacles. Now we offer a range of sports to our girls.
Since you have changed your approach, have you seen a difference?
Absolutely. In the last six years, we’ve grown from 3 after-school programs to programs in a multitude of schools and 5 collegiate programs where co-eds establish PLAG Clubs on their campuses and then engage middle school girls at surrounding schools.
That’s really great. There’s a lot of data about childhood obesity. How did you decide to focus on girls instead of childhood obesity in general?
We believe that changes in childhood obesity and the health in our communities as a whole really starts with girls and women. Here’s what we know:
1 in 3 American youths are affected by overweight or obesity.
Children’s behaviors and health outcomes tend to mimic their parents’.
Low-income, minority and girl youths are disproportionately affected by overweight and obesity.
A mother who is overweight and/or physically inactive is more likely to parent a child who will be overweight and/or physically inactive.
We also recognized that around the world, women tend to be change agents in their families, communities and workplaces. We believe it’s important to empower the change agents and to begin as early as we can to shift behaviors and thoughts. If a mother is setting a healthy direction for her family we’re likely to see change around childhood and adult obesity because we tend to be the caregivers, shoppers and decision makers about gyms, diet, after school activities and budgets.
By engaging the collective power of women on behalf of the girls in their lives we help give girls the early experiences with sports, physical activity and healthy eating necessary to develop a lifetime commitment to moving and active play. We hope the daughters will one day become women and mothers and will in-turn determine the trajectory of the next generation based on what their mothers taught them.
Women = change agents. Nothing but facts here! Have you had any personal experiences that have informed the way you run PLAG?
Absolutely. I have my own struggle with weight. I grew up in rural Mississippi and although it was post-Title IX, sports weren’t available to me. Early in life I became interested in the arts, which were typically very sedentary activities. As I focused more on my academic performance, earning two masters and a PhD, I became lazier and less physically active. That’s made it hard as I’ve aged to keep the weight off. Even at 41 years old, I continue to struggle to manage my weight, focus on eating healthy, and stay physically active. Being overweight as a child also caused a lot of emotional stress from bullying, ridicule, etc. I’m also clinically trained as a social worker.
So my experiences and my expertise inform how we deal with girls around issues of weight, and other things like death, tragedy, etc. My experiences inform our curriculum and the things that aren’t in the curriculum like loving on the girls and really being able to be positive role models. We provide positive outlets and safe places for girls to share their experiences, be heard and feel loved and empowered.
Wow your life has literally prepared you for PLAG. In fact, you were working towards a prestigious career before starting PLAG. How did you decide to go full-time with PLAG and how do you stay motivated?
I was working at the CDC and decided to get my PhD. When I left my PhD program after having established PLAG I became a tenured track professor at UGA and Morehouse School of Medicine. It was in 2010 that I left my academic career to work PLAG full-time. I wish I could say that the transition was intentional, but it wasn’t. My husband, a pediatric cardiologist, accepted a residency at Dallas Children’s hospital. We decided that I would take off a year so we could get our children settled in a new city. I decided to use my free time to run the organization’s day-to-day since we had begun to flourish. It worked out perfectly because we couldn’t afford to hire staff. We reach over 10,000 women and girls each year with less than $100,000. So my working with PLAG has been a strategic blessing.
Certainly, not everyday is a motivational or inspiring day, but being able to observe the girls; to see the behavior they develop and the skills they adopt as a result of the programming is really what keeps me motivated to do it everyday.
Speaking of budgets, how can people donate?
They can go to IPlayLikeAGirl.org. We’re launching a new site in 2017, so the only page up right now is the donations page. So people shouldn’t have any trouble giving if they so desire.
What’s up next for PLAG?
We’re really starting to scale and grow. We just received support from espnw to launch a search for a national Board of Directors. Also in 2017, any woman who is connected to another organization in their community (i.e. school, college, church, hospital, non-profit, etc.) can come to our website and start a club in her local community with as few as 10-15 girls. Our goal is to be in as many schools and communities as possible and to have reached at least 500,000 girls through our PLAG Clubs program and our Pop-Up Play Days in the next 5 years. My goal is to also be doing something else in life. I hope that we can bring on paid staff to sustain the work and get the funding we need to continue and grow so I can give from the outside.
We love to learn who influences the women we’re impressed by. What GladiatHer® has had an impact on your life?
One who I have come to really appreciate is Robin Roberts. She’s also from rural Mississippi and has gone on to do great things for women in sports media. She has represented trailblazing, “gladiating” women in so many phases of her life, especially in her fight against cancer. I’ve loved watching her thrive and give back through her career. I also admire how she’s managed to maneuver the game to represent women in media beyond sports and maintained her privacy and home life even after have coming out as a lesbian. I just love her. She’s the example of pure grace. She is graceful in areas of life that want to take you out from time to time.
Thank you Dr. Kim for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to GladiatHers.com. We appreciate and are thrilled about the life-changing work you do with PLAG. We can’t wait to see what 2017 and beyond has for the organization.