NORMAL — Tristen Thomas said he hoped his female peers felt inspired after hearing an address Wednesday at Epiphany Junior High School.

“Some girls out there don’t have a voice at all in the world and they can’t really speak for themselves. I think this day is inspiring for them,” said Tristen, a sixth-grader at the Normal school.

Wednesday was International Day of the Girl — a day designed to  encourage young women and provide opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.

Handshake Consulting, a partnership agency from New York, teamed up with Caterpillar Foundation, Glamour Magazine and The Girl Project to launch "The Future of the Girl" campaign.

J.R. Kerr is CEO of Handshake and has ties to Bloomington, where he decided to host a smaller-scale event mirroring the larger International Day of the Girl celebration taking place in New York City.

“This day is all about equality. Everyone should know there are women in other parts of the world who are suffering, just because they’re women. It’s really good we’re talking about that,” said Claire Kerr, also in the sixth grade.

“We should be thankful because we don’t have to deal with the same inequality. We are blessed and we should take advantage of the opportunities we’re given to help others.”

Fellow sixth-grader Kojo Adyonum said he “is used to talking about the topic” because his mom fights for women’s civil rights.

“A long time ago, men did everything and women had the stereotype of working only in the kitchen. It’s nice to have a day dedicated to girls,” he said.

Epiphany Junior High students listened to inspirational stories by Kirstin Hotelling Zona, an Illinois State University professor, and Catie Keogh, the Emmy Award-winning producer of “24/7 City Secrets.”

“You guys are tough. I know junior high brings more pressure, more homework and expectations are up. You’re figuring out who you are,” said Hotelling Zona.

She told a story about a pivotal moment she experienced in sixth grade that caused her to stop bullying and start being kind.

“I was unhappy and nervous after transferring from a different elementary school. I was concerned about fitting in. Soon, I was part of a fake group of friends who weren’t very nice,” she said.

Hotelling Zona said she started taking her frustrations out on a boy who sat near her on the bus. She would tease him for wearing slippers to school.

When the principal found out, he told her the boy wore slippers because his family couldn’t afford shoes.

“I felt horrible. My whole world changed. If I had the capacity to cause someone else such pain, I could make the choice to cause happiness instead,” she said. “By eighth grade, I was really happy. I was a good friend to myself which allowed me to be a good friend to others.”

Keogh encouraged the students to identify their passion and aim for a career doing something they loved, no matter the stigma around that job.

“Aim high,” said Keogh. “Do what gives you joy. Once you figure that out, you’ll know what you want to do for the rest of your life.”

Sixth-grader Keelin Anderson said she liked talking about “how to figure out our passions.”

“We need to spread the message that women deserve the same opportunities as men,” she said. “It’s good to start caring about this early so we can become more passionate about it as we get older.”

The students finished the assembly by submitting questions on social media with the hashtag #AskLikeAGirl to be answered by female celebrities and role models. 

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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