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Computer Clubs Empower Girls

Oakton resident founds nonprofit promoting girls and computer literacy

When Eileen Ellsworth's family got a new computer, she noticed how differently her children interacted with their new machine. Her son loved the computer, while her daughter didn't touch it.

Then at her job at Best Software, she needed to make PowerPoint presentations and Web pages, and she didn't know where to begin.

These two events led her to start a nonprofit promoting computer literacy among middle-school-age girls.

"It didn't matter what you did in life, you have to be computer literate," the 45-year-old Oakton resident said.

Although Ellsworth's organization, Empower Girls Inc., is only a year old, it's already succeeded at helping a few local students become comfortable in front of the monitor. At each of the four after-school clubs, fourth- and fifth-graders learn about Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, conduct Internet scavenger hunts, make necklaces with their initials in ASCII, and learn about the different parts of computer hardware.

But Ellsworth didn't start out as an educator. For 20 years, she was a trial lawyer, and her last job was as general counsel for Best Software, which later became part of The Sage Group.

As her career wore on, she considered changing her career path entirely.

"I was restless and wanted to try something else," Ellsworth said.

At the same time, when her family bought a computer, Ellsworth began reading a study by the American Association for University Women on middle-school girls and their reluctance with computers. The study said that girls lagged behind boys when it came to taking computer-related coursework in high school and college.

As Ellsworth was reading the study, "she looked at our daughter and thought, that could be her," said husband Robert Weil.

One of the study's recommendations was to create computer clubs for these girls. Ellsworth took this advice to heart.

"Some girls have an approach-avoidance thing with computers, they're afraid. So you have a little fun and a little demystification, and they're loving it," Ellsworth said.

To form these computer clubs, Ellsworth had to do several things. First, she needed to learn about all the applications herself, since she would be the instructor for the initial clubs.

"She literally taught herself. She sat down at the computer for weeks to master the programs and software," Weil said.

Then she tested out the curriculum with her 8-year-old daughter. Her daughter's first project was a PowerPoint presentation about Boston terriers, because she was lobbying her family to get one.

"She just loved it," Ellsworth said of her daughter.

After the initial legwork, Ellsworth approached Fairhill Elementary in Fairfax and the Reston Teen Center. Those locations were chosen because the families who lived near these locations were less likely to have computers at home. Some 42 girls participated in those first two clubs in spring 2002.

This fall, four schools have the after-school computer clubs, with 99 girls participating in the 10-week sessions. One school, Kings Glen Elementary in Springfield, has 30 participants, with an additional 30 girls on the waiting list.

"We have a lot of ESOL (English as a Second Language) students who may or may not have computers at home," said Empower Girls instructor Pam Alexander, who also works at Belvedere Elementary in Falls Church. "We have over 45 applications for 25 spaces, so I think the concept is popular."

Fellow Empower Girls instructor Victoria Torres agrees. A teacher at Bren Mar Park Elementary in Alexandria, Torres says the clubs help girls feel more comfortable around computers.

"I've noticed in my tenure as a teacher that girls are usually less comfortable using the computer. Even if they are quite competent, for some reason they often defer to the boys," Torres said. "I like the all-girl setting because it allows them to be social and assist each other comfortably and with confidence in their abilities. I wanted to be part of assisting them with this new awakening."

To keep Empower Girls running, Ellsworth shifted from instructor to chief director and fund-raiser. And people who know her say she's succeeding in that capacity, as well.

"Despite the fact that the fund-raising has been very difficult, especially in this climate, she doesn't stop," Weil said.

Empower Girls board member Mary Hodson said whenever Ellsworth talked about an idea for the organization, the next time you would see her, she would have a detailed plan for that idea.

"She's very driven, very goal-oriented," Hodson said. "She's really been incredibly passionate about it."

Ellsworth said her goals for Empower Girls are to have more clubs and to follow participants as they enter high school and college. She hopes that after girls participate in the club, they'll want to continue working with computers. Current figures show that high-school computer classes in Fairfax County are between 75- and 93-percent male.

"My goal is nothing short of changing these numbers," Ellsworth said.

For more information, go to www.empowergirls.org