By Aviva Luttrell, Correspondent

When Girls Inc. of Worcester was identifying priorities for its $5 million capital campaign, the non-profit knew that providing young women with STEM experiences and access to cutting-edge technology would continue to be critical in preparing them for the future, but found that resources in its building were severely lacking.

“We knew that girls would benefit greatly from new equipment in so many ways – not only for college and workplace prep – but because they’re so inclined to learn through technology,” CEO Victoria Waterman said.

So the organization set its sights on creating a modern space equipped with the tools girls need to thrive in STEM fields and beyond. With support from Saint-Gobain, a French corporation with a major manufacturing facility in Worcester, Girls Inc. recently opened a new technology center at its Providence Street location – closing out a round of renovations that also included a new roof, redesigned lobby, upgraded ventilation system, revamped staff space and a new café.

“We’re just starting to use the space and we’re looking forward to seeing where it takes us,” Waterman said. 

The new Saint-Gobain Technology Center features Chromebooks, Internet access, headphones and comfortable furniture – providing girls with many of the essentials they need to complete school-work remotely and explore more extensive technology-based training.

The center was designed pro bono by Lamoureux Pagano Associates and funded with the help of a five-year, $50,000 grant from Saint-Gobain Abrasives of North America, according to Brenda Heller, communications and community relations manager for Saint-Gobain. The corporation has a years-long history of volunteering for Girls Inc., beginning with a gym floor renovation in 2013.

“We have great partnerships with so many folks in the community. It’s not about the funds, it’s about holistic partnerships,” Heller said. “When we do grant funds, we look for opportunities that are beneficial for both organizations and provide a chance to collaborate and make it a partnership. Girls Inc. is one of the best examples of that for us.”

Girls Inc. is currently using the Saint-Gobain Technology Center to host a Learning Hub that allows 40 K-12 students to come to the nonprofit for remote school during the week. Through a recent survey, Girls Inc. found that 25 percent of students in the Worcester Public Schools do not have a computer or access to an internet connection resulting in a “digital divide” that has become especially urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic forces many children to learn remotely.

Waterman said in the future, Girls Inc. hopes to install a laser cutter and possibly a 3D printer in the space, and use it to host programs that teach girls how to code.

“We want to host projects that enhance their abilities and make them fall in love with technology and science,” she said. “Even if it’s teaching soft skills, you can do that through technology and speak to them in the format they enjoy and where they thrive. It’s about meeting the girls where they’re at.”

In addition to supporting the new technology center, Saint-Gobain awarded the organization $7,500 in seed money for its building renovations in 2017. Its parent company, SageGlass, also donated glass for the center that changes tint in response to sunlight.

“We are firm believers that STEM is a much-needed foundation for our younger generation and we want to be part of that process,” Heller said. “Girls Inc.’s mission to empower women and young ladies was a great opportunity for us to say, ‘We believe in your organization and we want to support that.’”

Among the ways Saint-Gobain backs that mission is by partnering with Girls Inc.’s Eureka! program to provide young women with meaningful STEM experiences at its R&D facility in Northborough. The five-year program, which begins in eighth grade and continues through high school graduation, helps girls to not only explore career options in the STEM field, but also develop confidence and leadership opportunities at no cost to them.

During the first two summers of the program, the young women spend a week at college campuses in Worcester. The following two summers, they work as “externs” on job sites, shadowing employees to gaining first-hand experience at companies like Saint-Gobain, Dell, Boston Scientific and Fallon Health. 

“The last summer, they have to find their own opportunities using the networking skills they’ve learned,” Waterman said. “By the time they graduate, it’s a really close-knit group. They’ve grown and learned so much together. This program changes the trajectory of their lives.”

Waterman added that the generosity of the community makes it possible for Girls Inc. to provide these types of resources and opportunities to girls in the Worcester area.

“Girls Inc. is such a fabulous organization,” Heller said. “We’re very fortunate to have organizations like this in the community and many of us feel grateful that we can collaborate with them and help in shaping the future generations.”