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Local Camp Brings Young Girls Together for Week of Music and Empowerment 

Rock out with the girls

As each of their names were called to be assigned instruments, a roaring cheer from a group of girls rang through the room. Once everyone had an assigned instrument, the girls broke off to begin ice breaker activities.

Some of them hugged old friends from previous years, lifting each other up and swinging one another around. Others excitedly shared their interest in favorite T.V. shows, songs, school subjects and music genres with their brand-new friends.

Led by a camp counselor, the girls chose their bandmates and formed a handful of bands, thus beginning their five-day program of music and girl power.

click to enlarge A camper perform vocals in her band for the 2017 showcase concert. (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)
  • A camper perform vocals in her band for the 2017 showcase concert. (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)

This is Girls Rock Charlotte.

An offshoot of the Portland, Oregon-based organization with which they share a name, the Charlotte chapter of this movement was brought to the city by executive director and founder Kelly Finley. After her daughter participated in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel-Hill chapter of the camp, Finley was inspired by the impact it had and wanted it in her own city.

The camp program is not constrained to a few cities here and there in the United States, however. The Girls Rock Camp Alliance has member organizations in states across the country and the world — boasting chapters in locations like Japan, Mozambique, Scotland, Australia and Serbia. The wide-reaching program gives girls everywhere the chance to build confidence and express themselves through music, most notably in a genre that is historically male-dominated and controlled.

"They're all over the world and that's what's so inspiring is that Girls Rock camps are not an experience, it's a movement," Finley said.

Girls Rock Charlotte is a non-profit organization designed to empower young girls ages 8 to 16 years old in a five-day summer camp through music and learning to play instruments. Campers who attend are tasked with writing and composing an original rock song to be performed at the end of the week in a band showcase concert. This week's camp will culminate with a concert at McGlohon Theater on August 11.

While that all may seem like a daunting task, the girls are not without help. Girls Rock Charlotte relies on a network of volunteers comprised of musicians, business owners and mentors to coach the campers during activities such as "Stage Confidence" and "Band Gear and Tech Talk." These activities within the program create an atmosphere in which the girls can be educated and empowered simultaneously.

The camp doesn't center on creating music, per se, but rather using art and music as a vehicle to empower youth and educate the girls about social justices and equality, according to Finley. The fun of the camp program helps bring girls together in a safe place to discuss how they can use their power in the communty and stand up for themselves and one another.

"The whole point of the camp has never been to create perfect musicians. It's about creating powerful girls," Finley said. "So it's this collective experience of empowering workshops that feature leaders in the community, amazing artists and professionals, that talk a lot about gender and power and using your voice. It's a really powerful mix together that makes this collective experience for them."

And despite the fact that the girls only have five days to learn an instrument, compose a rock song and put on a concert, they rock out harder that you would expect, said local musician Lisa De Novo, music volunteer coordinator for Girls Rock Charlotte.

"Just seeing them do so well when they only do it for a week, and then spring out these crazy lyrics about being your own person and being really powerful and just rocking out. I think people will leave the concert feeling really inspired," she said.

De Novo also enjoys watching the girls utilize the lessons they learned at camp in their everyday lives.

"Outside of the camp, they become stronger girls, in every aspect," De Novo said. "The music gives them the confidence because they know, 'I can stand on a big stage and rock.'"

This rings true for returning campers Georgia Foley and Charlie Poth, who both said the program has helped them build confidence. Sitting across from them on their first day back, it was already apparent how excited each camper already was for the upcoming showcase concert at the end of the week.

"I would totally recommend it for young girls and teens, it's so much fun and it's given me a lot more confidence," said the 14-year-old Poth.

"It helps you get in front of large groups of people so you can feel confident about being in front of people — and talking to a lot of people at once — when you may not have been comfortable doing that before," Foley, 13, chimed in.

click to enlarge The entire camp stands on stage for the 2017 Girls Rock CLT concert (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)
  • The entire camp stands on stage for the 2017 Girls Rock CLT concert (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)

Furthermore, one of the most important aspects to be noted about the program is that it is staffed and run by women. Many of the mentors and counselors that De Novo and Finley recruit tell them that they wish they had a program like Girls Rock when they were younger, which motivates them to be there for the campers now. This staffing practice gives the young campers roles models that they can relate to and look up to, while also creating a safe space for them to express themselves.

"When we're learning about our bodies at such a young age, it's important that we feel really comfortable in that kind of environment," De Novo said of the female staff. "You want to make sure that everybody's really comfortable and that we can really rock it as girls and just to have them see that they have role models that they can look up to."

The culmination of everything that the campers experience comes down to the Saturday evening concert, which will showcase what they learned during the week. This year, the night is dubbed "Rock N' Reel Show: A Night of GRRRL Power" and will also showcase the film camp that runs in conjunction with the music camp.

But the show doesn't stop there.

Throughout the rest of the year, Girls Rock Charlotte holds a workshop called Amplify!, wherein once a month throughout the school year the campers are encouraged to attend and continue creating music and practice building confidence.

Finley said it's a way for the chapter to sustain and cultivate the relationships that they've built with the campers even after the weeklong program is over.

The program also includes a "house band" made of campers that meet periodically to practice for shows around the community throughout the year. Headed by the camp's music director, Krystle Baller, the band practices at her music studio, Pachyderm Music Lab, and gives the girls a way to continue using music in their lives outside of the camp.

This year marks the first time Girls Rock is running side by side with the film camp. The sister program was brought about by Finley as a way to give girls the opportunity to be mentored behind the camera.

click to enlarge Two girls perform on their instruments for the 2017 showcase concert. (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)
  • Two girls perform on their instruments for the 2017 showcase concert. (Photo by Dani Nicole Photography)

Much like the rock camp, the Film Summer Camp will be assisted by female volunteers such as Jolly Dale, a former producer of The Walking Dead, and Kara McGee from Showtime's Homeland.

"We were just talking about how we need to have more women and more people of color behind the camera. Because that's where the power is when it comes to story and media in our lives," Finley said.

"It's a really hard industry to break into, and a lot of young women are very, very interested in it, but you really need to have some mentors and people who make that network for you. With that, we thought, 'Well, if we can teach them how to rock then we can teach them to make a movie in one week.'"

One of Girls Rock Charlotte's missions is to operate inclusively. This means also creating opportunities for lower-income families and campers by implementing a sliding payscale system for the program's fees.

The sliding scale operates on an honor system, with an understanding that families who can afford to pay the full amount know that some of that money will go toward supporting another camper whose family may not be able to afford as much.

Not only does the program work to include participants from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, but also campers from varying gender identities.

"Some people think that we're only for girls, but we're also very passionate about and committed to a camp that includes gender diverse and queer and trans youth," Finley said.

In a world that demands the need for movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, a program such as this will help prepare girls to help contribute to a future of powerful women demanding equality for all, Finley hopes.

And if they learn to rock out in the meantime, more power to them.

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