Poised near the top of a 25-foot-tall rock-climbing wall Tuesday, 12-year-old Ashley Jackson envisioned few obstacles in her future.

The Lewis and Clark Elementary School student was among 125 girls from third- through eighth-grade classes across Clatsop County at a new event meant to inspire local young ladies to aim high and be bold.

"All the girls should come," Jackson said of the Clatsop Girls United Leadership Day, where girls selected by their schools braved fire, faced welding torches and scaled the climbing wall before parading for the public Tuesday afternoon. "We get to do activities ... to know we're strong."

Organized by local teachers, education service district employees and community college instructors, the girl-empowering event will likely continue every other year, filling in during the off-years of the larger Girls Inc. summit held biannually in Portland, said Noreen Peterson, a John Jacob Astor Elementary School teacher who helped coordinate the local leadership day.

Counselors and teachers targeted a range of girls to participate. Some of the students had already demonstrated a strong ability to lead, while others were chosen to benefit by learning from their peers' examples. Peterson said most would end up with a boost in self-confidence.

"It's about getting girls to know each other and to have those connections, and to be able to experience different kinds of activities, to key in on leadership skills," said Peterson. "We expose some of the girls to experience they would not have otherwise."

At Clatsop Community College, students tried fencing, shaped ceramics, discussed careers and even learned the art of massage. Later, at CCC's Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station, they climbed the National Guard's mobile rock wall, learned about cars and toured the marine firefighting facility with instructor Joey Daniels, a lieutenant with the Gearhart Fire Department.

Before taking the girls into the burning facility, where natural-gas-fueled blazes climb the walls and flames lick from galleys with the flip of a switch, Daniels looked out over a sea of pink baseball caps and asked a candid question: "What exactly is girl power?"

"It's giving young girls the ability to know they can do anything they put their minds to," explained chaperone Marcia Hartill, who recently retired from teaching at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. "It doesn't have to be just a guy's job. A girl can be a firefighter."

"Actually, most of my degree-seeking students are female," said Daniels. The local training program involves "mostly female firefighters," he said, adding that all three of the local fire department's internship slots are presently filled by women.

But the same goes for any other occupation, said Hartill. Earlier in the day, many girls talked to Nikki Culver, an Astoria police officer who once sat at a desk in the retired teacher's classroom.

"They are seeing the availability of professions they may not know about" or might not consider, Hartill said. "I think that's one of the benefits of girl power."

Clatsop Community College instructor Julie Brown said the students also got a glimpse of life in higher education, moving from class to class throughout the day. "It's almost like a mini day on campus," she said.

Astoria resident Joanie Adams, who taught a mini massage course, was overwhelmed - and thrilled - with the turnout.

"It was really, really fun to see," she said. "Hopefully some of these girls will be our leaders down the road."


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