MERIDEN — Laurel Kroeber had taco shells ready to stuff with fixings Thursday as her three giggly charges expressed their amusement.
“I love this age group,” said Kroeber, a teen leader at Girls Inc. “They’ll listen, and they’re very excited.”
Kroeber used to be shy, even bullied, in school before coming to Girls Inc. as a young child. Today she leads the 4-to-6-year-old Lil’ Chefs and participates in other programs at the club.
“We’re learning to be strong women,” she said. “It’s given me a lot of confidence. I’m definitely not shy anymore.”
Girls Inc. has come a long way from the days when young girls were taught the proper way to set a table and other tips that groomed them for marriage and motherhood.
This year, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, staff, alumni and students will celebrate Girls Inc.’s evolution, including mission and programs.
“We’re here to inspire girls to be strong, smart and bold,” said Executive Director Michelle Bourdeau. “We want them to be independent minded, independent thinking. I wished I had access to this programming when I was younger.”
Girls Inc. serves about 1,500 girls age 5 and up from Meriden and Wallingford. It continues its traditional programming of dance and gymnastics as well as offering newer programs in science, math and technology, economic literacy, and social media literacy.
“We even talk about how women are depicted in the media,” Bourdeau said.
Members of the Girls Inc. board have planned several events to commemorate the 100th anniversary and “celebrate the community that has embraced us throughout the years,” Bourdeau said.
There will be a business after hours on March 22, and the annual Strong, Smart and Bold dinner on May 8. On July 20, Girls Inc. will host a family fun fest picnic, and on Sept. 20 will be participating in the Silver City Brew Fest.
The Meriden Girls Club was organized in 1919 by the Meriden’s Women’s Club, The first meeting was held in a small rented room on Colony Street on Sept. 19. Members were age 16 and older who participated in cooking, sewing, knitting and book club.
In the 1930s, classes were offered to younger girls.
The club was funded by the Community Club, which allowed them to buy the Italian-American Club on Grove street. Activities expanded to homemaking skills, volleyball, basketball and roller-skating.
In 1948, the club affiliated with the Girls Club of America. In 1951, Mrs. James Platt died and left her residence at 130 Lincoln St. to the Girls Club to be used as a center.
It was a gift in memory of her daughter Margery and was called the Platt Home for Girls Inc.
In 1957, the club built a gymnasium and stage along the building’s north side. Later, the club added summer programs and a pool was built in the backyard.
Boys age 2 through 12 also became part of the membership, but the club was girls only from age 13 to 18. The national Girls Club of America changed its name to Girls Inc. in 1990 and the Meriden affiliate followed.
The teen programs offer girls the opportunity to explore careers and develop job training skills. There are also pregnancy prevention programs and leadership training. Funding for the club comes from the United Way, the Platt Fund, the Board of Trustees fundraising and gifts from the central Connecticut community. Girls Inc. charges fees for its programs but uses a sliding scale for fees and offers assistance for girls in need.
Kristilee Lahaye began attending the center in the early 1990s and stayed for seven years.
“It helped me with leadership skills,” Lahaye said. “It gave me a support network, another person I could go to.”
Today Lahaye is secretary of the board of directors and signed her two daughters up for programs.
“I wanted them involved in the organization for the same reasons: to get that support, girls helping girls instead of putting each other down,” Lahaye said. “To get a different sense of self.”
The club has added anti-bullying and MeToo programs into the curriculum in recent years, and the “smart, bold and strong” motto is a central theme.
The 100th anniversary is significant in many ways, Lahaye said.
“The significance is how far we’ve come,” she said. “it’s a great accomplishment that the organization is going strong. It’s still a great outlet for girls. It gives them a strong sense of self.”