Former Miss Oregon Teen USA helps teens build confidence as they head back to the classroom.

Shayla Montgomery, Girls Inc. Fundraiser

Shayla Montgomery is a confident 19-year-old nursing student at Warner Pacific University who was crowned Miss Oregon Teen USA in 2020, and went on to win first runner-up at last year’s Miss Teen USA pageant. It’s hard to believe that when she first started in the pageant world at the age of 11, she struggled with her self-worth. Her mother, Sheila Montgomery, calls it a “very dark spot in [Shayla’s] life.” Bullies in middle school attacked her with racial slurs, making her feel insecure about her identity. The school counselor left the kids to work things out on their own, which, according to Shayla, just made things worse. Changing schools in 8th grade helped, but so did a flyer on the wall advertising an after school program run by an organization called Girls Inc.

Girls Inc. serves girls and youth ages 6-18, empowering them to be “strong, smart and bold.” According to Cyreena Boston Ashby, CEO of Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest and mother of two young girls, the programs equip girls with the tools needed to thrive in a society that is geared against girls and young women. Weekly, adult-facilitated after school meetings called Girls Groups focus on topics such as body positivity, financial literacy and consent and relationships. High schoolers can take part in the leadership council, where they become mentors for younger girls and have opportunities to develop critical thinking skills and engage in dialog about social issues. There’s also a STEM program for 8th-12th graders called Eureka!, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math subjects and careers, as well as college prep.

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Cyreena Boston Ashby, CEO of Girls Inc. of the Pacific Northwest

“I’m really thankful for [Girls Inc.],” says Shayla. “Being in their after school group allowed me to come out of my shell and begin to realize my self-worth. They taught me how to carry myself as a young woman.” As a mentee and, later, mentor, Shayla grew in confidence and learned to advocate for herself and others. While still in middle school, she started an anti-bullying campaign called #StandUp, that taught teens how to navigate bullying and find the resources they needed, especially when they didn’t feel supported.

The root cause of bullying, Shayla believes, is a lack of self-love. “There is something wrong in their lives or their hearts, that [bullies] feel the need to attack other people. The person being attacked is going to struggle with self-love as well. So, if we all love ourselves, we are not going to let people bully us and we are not going to bully other people.” 

Helping other girls learn self-love and discover their self-worth has become Shayla’s passion. A year before being crowned Miss Oregon Teen USA, Shayla founded Teens Speak Life, an organization that presents free online conferences for teens. A variety of speakers give mini sessions on topics like mindfulness, fitness, nutrition, breaking the barriers of negative self-talk and self-care. 

In a world where our children are constantly assaulted with media images of seemingly perfect people and mixed messages about how young women are valued, it’s more important than ever for young women to be confident about who they are. “Don’t compare your life to others,” Shayla advises today’s teens and tweens. “It’s really easy to see famous people, living extravagant, amazing lives … But Instagram is a highlight reel. We’re all going through something. What we are posting [on social media] is not real life.”

Social media, a mixed blessing and curse, has been the primary way young people have communicated with one another the last year and a half during the pandemic. “What we are seeing in the return to school [setting],” says Cyreena, “is high conflict and a lack of social skills. There’s a lot of drama, and [a Girls Group] is their safe space to talk about it.”

So, what can parents do to help their teens and tweens as they head back to the classroom? Cyreena advises, “Don’t go it alone! Encourage your children, particularly pre-adolescents and adolescents, to sign up for Girls Inc., or any [similar] type of group.”

But what if your child isn’t interested in joining a group like that? “Encourage them to give it one shot,” suggests Shayla. “My dad always told me that if you try something once, you can never think ‘what if?’ It can make you stronger and more confident, educate you, make you into a young adult with a nice head on your shoulders, who understands the world around you.” Though Girls Inc. PNW primarily serves girls and gender nonconforming youth in Multnomah County (as well as Southwest Washington, Seattle and Tacoma), the current virtual nature of the programs means girls outside of these areas have also been able to participate. There is no cost to attend, making the programs even more inclusive. To find out if your child is eligible, contact Girls Inc. Updates about upcoming Teens Speak Life conferences are posted on the Teens Speak Life Instagram page.

Elizabeth Ely Moreno

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