UND alumna creates movement to help young girls love themselves for who they are.
As the mother of young daughters, Missy (Berg) Heilman, ’01, began to notice the social pressures her girls would have growing up. The year was 2013 and it was the dawn of social media. Her girls, only in early elementary school at the time, were already beginning to experience the influences of society — the pressure to be beautiful based on the standards of what they see in the media rather than their own values, talents and philanthropy. She started dreaming about a group where self-acceptance empowers girls to be their best, beautiful self – inside and out.
“Girls have the highest self-esteem at age nine and by the time they are 12 their self-esteem is at its lowest,” Heilman said.
This statistic was one that kept her awake at night and motivated Heilman to create BIO Girls, which stands for Beautiful Inside and Out. “I went to the staff at my church and told them my idea. They were supportive and we got a school counselor involved to help create the structure. Each session combines life skills lessons, small group mentoring and physical activity. BIO Girls builds the self-esteem of adolescent girls through empowerment of self and service to others,” she said.
A former UND track and field student-athlete, Heilman knew firsthand that physical activity is proven to increase confidence. She also recognized the important role her faith played in her life —both components she believed to be, and still are, at the foundation of BIO Girls. “We use physical activity and faith to reinforce the skills we are teaching,” explained Heilman.
When BIO Girls was born six years ago, it consisted of one site in Fargo, North Dakota, 35 participants, 10 mentors, one sponsor, and a leader with a huge, passionate heart. Today, it has grown to 31 sites, more than 1,200 participants, and nearly 400 volunteers serving as site directors and mentors. BIO Girls groups exist in four states; North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. “I get a lot of kudos for starting it, but it wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers. We are amazed day in and day out about the passion for the mission they bring to the program,” Heilman said.
At the time Heilman started BIO girls, she was working full-time as a marketing director in Fargo. She was balancing being a wife, mom, working full-time, and launching BIO Girls in her “extra time”. Though it was never her strategic intention for the organization to grow as much as it has, by 2017 she was able to quit her day job to pursue a full-time career with BIO Girls as a 501c3 non-profit. She’s since brought an additional full-time marketing director, as well as two part-time employees, on board with her. “At BIO Girls we have created a movement. A movement with tremendous momentum. A movement snowballing organically. A movement with life-changing impact,” Heilman writes on her BIO Girls blog.
During a BIO Girls meeting, about 35 second through sixth grade girls and a dozen mentors and site directors come together for one evening a week over a 12-week span. Each meeting consists of a devotion, a life-skills lesson, small group mentoring, and ends with a physical activity — usually running. Throughout the course of the session, the distance the girls run increases, leading up to a 5k run on the last day. “With the running component, it is really about the girls supporting and encouraging each other. We tell them, “No matter what your time is you finished and that is what matters. It is not a competition. It is so amazing to see their confidence grow each week,” Heilman said.
At BIO Girls we have created a movement. ... A movement with life-changing impact.Missy (Berg) Heilman, ’01
Each BIO girl is assigned a mentor whom she builds a relationship with throughout the course of the 12 weeks. Heilman explains that research shows that kids who have a non-familial mentor in their life are proven to have higher self-esteems.
While a hurdler at UND from 1996-01, Heilman recalls the positive impact her personal mentor, UND Track & Field Coach Dick Clay, had on her life. “He was a really powerful influence. He provided such solid advice and was a big part of my time there. It is so beneficial for these girls to have somebody they can connect with at such a young age,” Heilman said.
Girls feeling negative about their bodies, girls feeling pressure to be beautiful based on what they see on social media and girls basing their self-worth on external acceptance are epidemics Heilman and her force of BIO Girls mentors will continue to combat — and change. As BIO Girls locations continue to multiply and the number of girls participating quickly climbs, Heilman hopes for a world where every adolescent girl feels confident to be herself.
“Along the way, we are teaching thousands of girls that their self-worth doesn’t come from how many “likes” a selfie gets. With a BIO Girls background, girls can take on the pitfalls of adolescence and stand up to negative social pressures while maintaining a healthy self-image. I truly wake up every day feeling blessed that I have this opportunity to help our youth in this way,” Heilman concluded.
To find out more about BIO Girls or get involved visit biogirls.org.