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The ripple effect: creating a safe space for young women to thrive

17 November 2021

Sarah Murray talks to the two New Plymouth women behind Girls Minds Matter.

WORDS BY Sarah Murray

Girls Minds Matter co-founders Sorcha Wolnik and Elle Belushi. Photography: Katie O’Neill.

Walk up to the second floor of a nondescript building on New Plymouth’s Brougham Street and you’ll be greeted by a space with such an exquisite aesthetic, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into a magazine shoot. Pretty pastels are juxtaposed with plush velvet textures, all within bright and airy white walls. On Tuesdays that space is filled with young women, ranging from 12-24, many still in their scratchy tartan school uniforms. They’re there for their weekly meeting at the headquarters for Girls Minds Matter — an organisation designed to support young women with tools of empowerment around mental wellbeing and leadership. And that space, which is so polished and refined, was designed specifically for them. 

“When you’re dealing with mental illness you go to these places that are very clinical, very drab, very grey,” says co-founder Elle Belushi, who designed the space. “It is not a place that’s going to uplift you and make you feel well. So for us, we wanted to make sure these girls felt like they were important and deserved a space that looked beautiful.” 

At the time of talking with her, Belushi is 37 weeks pregnant with her third child, and sitting in her apartment where she lives with her husband and two children. Conveniently, it’s located just one level up from the Girls Minds Matter HQ and she jokes about her short commute to work.

Opening its doors last year Girls Minds Matter was the brain child of Belushi and Sorcha Wolnik. Its aim? To set young women up with the skills, tools, and knowledge to be able to handle whatever comes at them from life. You could say the pair have birthed a couple of other life-changing projects together prior to this as Wolnik, a mum of three, is also Belushi’s midwife. Over time they bonded about their shared experiences with mental health, which became the catalyst for the project.  “I experienced mental illness for 14 years of my life,” says Belushi. “It took over all of my teenage years. It wasn’t really talked about back then. I ended up suppressing my feelings and running away from those feelings which led to eating disorders, and addictions.

The list goes on. If there had been something like what we are offering now, it could have really helped and not made me feel so alone during those years.”

Their star program is a ten-week course called True Connections which is split into two groups, one for 12-15 year olds and the other for 15-24 year olds. The course is led by Belushi and Wolnik — the latter who now works as a women’s empowerment coach. They teach things such as self-care tools, body positivity, and nutrition. They also bring in different facilitators to teach particular modules. Recently someone came to teach yoga and breath work, and another taught a class on essential oils. Upcoming modules will include sound healing and meditation, as well as creative topics such as art and drama.

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The major difference between what Belushi and Wolnik offer from other empowerment courses for young women is it’s not clinical, which is something they were insistent on. “We’re not clinical; we haven’t studied,” says Belushi matter-of-factly. “We really wanted to steer clear of the clinical side and offer that peer support. We don’t dismiss the clinical side but from our own experience we felt we couldn’t connect with some of the counsellors and therapists we saw. We found that a lot of the peer-based groups we did were life-changing. It was being able to connect with others that had gone through similar experiences.”

Their unique approach seems to be working. Since opening they’ve added a ‘drop in’ day on Thursdays because once the young women finish the ten-week course, they don’t want to leave. Their ‘drop in’ day is not structured—sometimes they play board games, other times they might screen a documentary. Mostly, it’s providing a safe space for these young women to come and talk. 

Although Girls Minds Matter is only in its early stages Wolnik says they’ve already started to see some amazing results. She tells me of one girl who had a history of sexual trauma and found it difficult to maintain basic tasks, and now she has landed her first job. 

“Another girl made a commitment to not self-harm and she has been clean for six months now,” says Wolnik.

“For me, watching the girls connect and move from a state of fear, being awkward and unsure of themselves, to feeling that sense of belonging, friendship and sisterhood has been so powerful to witness.  Their confidence and self-belief has grown, as well as their awareness of the tools and knowledge we share.”

Belushi adds: “We’ve already seen the ripple effect. The feedback we’re getting is that these girls are now able to identify if their friends are upset or struggling and have these open conversations that they wouldn’t have had before. We’re not just changing these girls’ lives but it’s also rippling out to their friends and families and communities.”

At the moment Girls Minds Matter has funding which means they can offer their True Connections course for free. And with their next two intakes already full, it’s very clear there is a need for an organisation like this to exist. 

“I think our mental health is just getting worse and worse,” says Belushi. “The rise of social media and phone usage makes it extremely hard for teens to navigate this difficult time in their lives. Our mission is just that all girls can live a healthy and well life — and thrive.”

In the future Belushi and Wolnik want to make Girls Minds Matter a sustainable business so they don’t have to rely on funding streams. To do that they’re planning online courses, workshops, and retreats but will also continue to look at securing sponsorship so their True Connections program can remain accessible to those who need it.

Ultimately, their main goal remains to support these young women. To help them live their best lives and become active leaders and change makers, not only in their communities but in the world.

Discover more at girlsmindsmatter.com.

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