The energy was palpable, with people filling the entryway, shaking hands and engaging in excited conversations as they waited for the ceremony celebrating the opening of Girls Inc’s new location in downtown Oakland to begin on Thursday. The organization works with girls to help them with literacy, career goals and to learning to care for themselves, both emotionally and physically.
The 33,000 square-foot space located at Broadway and 16th Street is slated to open in less than a year and is much larger than the 13,000 square-foot building the organization currently occupies in San Leandro. The construction team will gut the interior of the existing space and renovate it according to the architectural plans created for the building.
Girls Inc. is part of a large national organization, and the Alameda County chapter has been around since 1958. It started as small club in San Leandro for 90 girls, but today they serve 7,500 girls and families across the county, said Chief Development Officer Kirsten Melton before the ceremony began.
“We are excited to be in Oakland,” Melton said. “It means we are growing up. Most of the girls served live in Oakland, which means they will be closer to the services. Also this is on a main transit hub that allows the girls to get to the center safely and easily. This couldn’t be a better location.”
Finally, it was time for the ceremony, and Linda Boessenecker, the group’s CEO, moved to the center of the room to welcome everyone to the new Girls Inc. Simpson Center for Girls, the first and only resource center for girls in Alameda County, she said. “This is our ceremonial groundbreaking because we actually won’t begin construction for a couple of weeks,” Boessenecker said.
During the ceremony, the staff used a sledgehammer to knock a hole in the wall of one of the empty offices, a stand-in for the shovel traditionally used to scoop up a first layer of dirt at a groundbreaking.
Once work on the building begins, they will almost completely demolish the building leaving only the elevator, stairs and a few concrete walls that need to stay, said Teddy Huddleston, who works with Equity Community Builders and is the project manager for the building.
“As far as the design that Anne Phillips Architecture has done, it’s going to be very colorful, very lively and very oriented toward the girls and their programs,” Huddleston said. “The second floor will have an atrium cut in so there will actually be a large open space that is two stories high.”
The first two floors of the redesigned building will feature an Internet café, which will be a place for girls to do homework, Melton said. There will be a college and career preparatory center and a literacy space for reading, as well as a health and fitness center for those referred to the organization for classes by their doctors for obesity-related illnesses. There will also be a yoga studio and a kitchen and nutrition center to teach girls and families how to cook and be healthy.
The keynote speakers at Thursday’s event were Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Dion Campbell, who has been a part of the Girls Inc. program since she was in 7th grade. “It’s funny how some places in your life make such a difference in making you who you are,” Campbell said. “I’ve lived in Oakland all my life. Sometimes times were hard but I always felt special when I came here.”
Through Girls Inc, Campbell said, she was able to build relationships with girls she might not have met otherwise. At one point during her speech, she paused and stood looking up at the ceiling, taking a deep breath as she tried to hold back the tears that started to roll down her cheeks. “I was with women who not only cared about me, but [they] cared about where I was going in life,” she said.
“Isn’t this is a great day for Oakland?” Quan asked when it was her turn to speak. “It’s going to be a great day for our next generation of women leaders. … To have this group in the heart of our city near another wonderful project, Youth Radio, shows that young people are part of downtown and are part of our dreams and the growing prosperity of our city and that we are going to include everyone.”
Barclay and Sharon Simpson are longtime advocates of Girls Inc. and, along with Kaiser Permanente and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, have donated gifts of $1 million or more to the new construction project. “Every dollar that I give to Girls Inc. get more results than any dollar for anything else,” Barclay Simpson said to a small group of people after the official presentation ended. “We started a reading program in the Lockwood School in Oakland. Four percent of the kids in this school read at grade level. We never used the teachers. We had our own. There were 30 girls I think the first time, in the first group. Fifteen of them lasted and got through the second grade reading at or above the grade level. So, talk about doing some good with a buck, man!”
The younger girls who are part of the program spent most of their time at the groundbreaking in the front of building talking to the visitors, family and friends, and also participated in the ceremony by demonstrating their reading skills.
Nine-year-old Kelly Lafargue, who has been a part of Girls Inc. since kindergarten, said she had fun at the event. “I got to see the building,” she said.
Third grader Karla Ignacio said that her best Girls Inc. field trip so far “is right here!”
After the speeches, a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and vegetables was served and guests were given an opportunity to look at the building and the architectural plans hanging on the wall near the entrance. Boessnecker made her way through the room shaking hands and speaking with the guests.
Boessenecker said construction should begin in mid-July and will the work will be completed in 11 months. They anticipate a grand opening ceremony in June next year.
“This makes me really happy, you know, because people look around and they see this building. I see the dreams of girls.” Boessenecker said. “I see what happens, what is going to be able to be made for the future of girls.”