Building ‘strong, smart and bold’ girls

Girls Inc. program blossoms under Basden’s leadership

Friday, January 18, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 3
By Nancy Henderson

A few years ago, a fourth-grader arrived at Girls Inc. of Oak Ridge after witnessing her mom shoot her father to death in a remote town in Alaska. The grandmother, who had moved the girl here, was at a loss about what to do with her.

“Addison came to us very shy, very uninterested in getting involved, was having a lot of difficulties connecting with other girls,” says Rhoni Basden, 33, executive director of what is now Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley. “She would hide behind her hair and sit in the corner and wouldn’t participate.”

Gradually, the girl began to make friends, order her own meal in a restaurant – something she’d previously been too timid to do – and excel in school.

“She participates in every Girls Inc. sports activity we have now,” Basden says. “And she actually just won this past year at our national conference, out of all 250,000 Girls Inc. girls, Girl of the Year for her age group. It kind of shows what that time at Girls Inc. can do to make a girl more confident.”

Girls Inc., a national network for girls age 5-18 in 400 cities, uses a holistic approach to support, mentor and guide participants in a “pro-girl environment.” Since taking the helm of the local organization in 2013, Basden has filled the original Oak Ridge-based center to capacity and implemented new outreach programs at 18 schools in Anderson, Blount and Knox counties.

“I think her biggest strength is how much she believes in the Girls Inc. mission of inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold, and she emulates that in her own life,” says Kirby Deal, director of development. “In our society, we are at such a turning point for women and girls, and Rhoni cares about each and every girl that we serve and champions for them daily.

“As a staff, we are inspired by her compassion and knowledge. She is an easy leader to follow because we all know that at her core, she is in this job to help the next generation of girls be their true selves and have the best opportunities that the world has to offer.”

Raised in a close-knit, single-mom household in a small Vermont town, Basden was outgoing and athletic, and especially loved lacrosse and snowboarding. Her hard-working mother ran the local luxury hotel. “So I spent a lot of time kind of like Eloise, growing up behind the front desk, hanging out with the dining staff and things like that,” Basden remembers.

Her name, incidentally, is not short for Rhonda or Veronica but a tribute to her grandfather Ronnie. “It was a surefire way for [my mom] to confuse people as I grew up,” she jokes.

Rhoni Basden, executive director of Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley, mentors girls to be their very best by providing after-school activities, which include exploring science, art activities like hand printing, and even a small computer lab, as well as sports programs.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Despite her gregarious personality, both Basden and her equally sales-oriented brother shied away from careers in the hospitality industry and gravitated instead toward social work.

Although her hometown was far from racially diverse, its residents were socially and politically active, exposing her to a melting pot of ideas and opinions. Visiting lower-income neighborhoods made her feel fortunate, while serving the high-end clientele who frequented the hotel instilled in her a desire to help others achieve economic independence.

When it was time for college, Basden was ready to get as far away as she could from the snowy winters of New England, so she enrolled at Stetson University in central Florida. Her high school sociology classes and a professor with a warm personality and wealth of knowledge nudged her toward a career that involved helping others.

“I was also always called a social butterfly and just didn’t meet a stranger,” she says. “So, I think going into a field where you learn about relationships with people was pretty natural.”

She transferred to the University of San Francisco for her senior year, adding a restorative justice specialty to her sociology major. “I had a big dream of going out and saving the juvenile justice system, one person at a time,” she recalls. “But then reality sinks in a little bit once you get into the workforce.”

Basden moved to Seattle after graduating in 2008 hoping to find a job in the juvenile justice system in King County. But her lack of experience worked against her, so she ended up at a wholesale footwear company, where for about a year, she managed multiple trade shows.

Her social services career began with a six-month, grant-funded stint at the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, where she primarily worked with the legal team. “The ACLU was one of those places you’ve never felt so humble,” Basden says. “You are surrounded by these incredibly passionate and motivated and highly intelligent people.”

Caught up in youthful naivete, Basden had assumed that when the ACLU staff received a request for help, they jumped in and handled the issue, then celebrated and moved on to the next one. Of course, it didn’t work that way.

Basden was raised in a close-knit, single-mom household in a small Vermont town. “I was also always called a social butterfly and just didn’t meet a stranger,” she says.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“Problems just kind of compound on a daily basis and they tackle as much as they possibly can,” she adds. “So it was pretty humbling to see that and pretty difficult to see what people are really facing and how valid all of these complaints were and how little resources we have to really solve all of them. I mean, if you want a fire lit under you, it’s the perfect place to go.”

When her ACLU project ended, Basden was hired at a state-operated housing project for children with disabilities. Working mostly with kids on the autism spectrum, she managed cases, figured out how to access state funding, and provided family support.

In late 2010, Basden became special needs and child development coordinator at Denise Louie Education Center, which offers multicultural early learning programs for Seattle’s immigrant populations. There, she helped East African and South American families – only pregnant mothers and those with children under age 3 were eligible – assimilate into the local culture and secure financial aid for medical treatments and food.

“That’s really kind of where I knew I was in the right place, career-wise,” she explains. “I loved being able to meet people where they were, loved helping families adjust to life in America, loved making sure young families were starting out on a healthy and right foot, make sure they were accessing all the services they needed.”

Basden and her husband Cam loved Seattle but soon found it too expensive for the modest salaries of a social worker and a teacher. They made plans to move back east to be closer to family, ultimately choosing Blount County because Basden’s mom had once lived there.

Basden assumed she’d continue her work with children with special needs, particularly autism, and concentrated her job search efforts in that area. But while surfing the websites of well-known nonprofits in East Tennessee, she came across a listing for the executive director position at Girls Inc. of Oak Ridge, which opened in 1976 as a female-only sports program called Girls Club.

She had never heard of Girls Inc.

Still, she says, “I was immediately enamored by the mission. It kind of seemed like a long shot at the time. To jump from a special needs director, all of a sudden, to an executive director seemed like a leap, but I said, ‘I’m just going to go for it. I feel like I can do it.’ And I got very lucky. I really have grown with the organization and now live and breathe the Girls Inc. mission.”

The after-school programs are open to girls 5-18 years old and focus on developing healthy behaviors, adopting strong life skills, exploration and encouraging all girls to strive for more. The after-school program runs throughout the school year, Monday through Friday. Information is available at

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

In 2014, one year after she was hired to run the small, sports-driven Oak Ridge facility, the local organization launched after-school pilot programs in two schools in Knoxville to see how the girls, teachers and parents would respond.

The positive feedback, Basden says, was “immediate.”

So she and her staff began offering programs in two more schools, then two more, until they reached the current total of 18. The Oak Ridge facility serves as administrative headquarters for what is now known as Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley and also hosts weeklong camps each spring and fall.

The speed with which the organization spread its wings after Basden came on board, she admits, “was all my silliness. … In order to grow and sustain as a nonprofit organization, I feel strongly you need to diversify your program offerings. So we started to look at other ways we could provide an impact to girls, especially the girls that need us the most from the lowest-income areas.”

No longer limited to athletics, Girls Inc. now focuses on a variety of life skills. One of the most in-demand programs is the STEM initiative that exposes girls to science, technology, engineering and mathematics through classes in, among other things, coding, cybersecurity and mobile app development.

“We want girls to not only understand and feel confident in these fields, but we want them to have a passion for it and to change the statistics you see around women in STEM,” Basden points out. “We want to get girls comfortable [with the fact that] you might be the only woman in the lab, but that’s OK and you can still do it.”

Another Girls Inc. curriculum, economic literacy, trains young women to budget for expenses and handle their own finances, while mind-body initiatives encourage them to resolve conflicts, manage stress and work together “instead of against each other.”

One of Basden’s favorite programs, Garage Girls, is also the newest. In addition to learning how to change a tire, check the oil in their cars and know what to do when the engine light comes on, participants visit dealerships and work with sales representatives to understand financing and how to negotiate when buying a vehicle.

The mission of Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley is “to inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold.”

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

While Basden no longer works exclusively with children with special needs, she has funneled those skills into adaptive classrooms for girls with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental conditions. In the past, when parents would ask about such services, they were told, “‘We’re not set up for that,’” Basden recalls. “So very quickly, it was, ‘Well then, let’s get set up for that.’” Staff members are now trained to integrate kids with disabilities into the classroom, and able-bodied students learn how to interact with their new peers and rise above stereotypes.

Girls Inc. is different from similar organizations in that it provides a safe, “girls-only space” that addresses the unique challenges and obstacles young women encounter on a daily basis, Basden says.

“We don’t believe in single-sex education and we don’t believe in girls-only classrooms, but we believe that there need to be these opportunities for girls to learn how to overcome girl-specific challenges and how to learn to work with girls and women to best support each other in the future. I believe that girls need this level of intentional programming and not just a blanket program that could fit any child.”

Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley now serves 1,100 girls annually. Three out of four, Basden says, earn mostly As and Bs, 81 percent played on at least one sports team last year, and 82 percent say they are learning new ways to make a positive difference in the world.

Of all her accomplishments, Basden is proudest of helping the girls who are most vulnerable, including those who are living in extreme poverty or with few opportunities to follow their dreams. “Girls Inc. didn’t just grow in the number of girls,” she explains. “We grew in the number of girls that really needed us the most.”

Hands-on but not prone to micro-managing, Basden considers herself a “big picture thinker. So, I kind of tend to throw out a very lofty idea and then utilize my team to bring that down to logistically what we can make work.”

She interacts with the Oak Ridge center students each day and makes a point to visit the outreach sites when she’s not giving speeches or meeting with volunteers and donors.

Deal describes her boss as “fiercely compassionate and loyal. She operates off a moral compass that allows her to think about what is right first, and what is easier second. In addition, she is such a fun person to be around.”

It’s not unusual to see Basden’s family hanging out at Girls Inc. Husband Cam has coached tennis lessons, built shelves and cleaned. Sons Oliver, 4, and Griffin, 18 months, are often spotted in the classrooms. Her mom, siblings and other family members attend fundraisers.

Basden and her spouse, who enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities, are extremely outgoing and thrive on networking. “We kind of walk into a party and divide up a room because we both just can’t stop talking,” she says. “Our oldest son is painfully shy, so we’re curious where he even got that because neither one of us seem to have a shy bone in our bodies.”

They are raising their children to honor and promote gender equality. “I really want my boys to understand that what boys have access to, girls also do,” Basden adds. “My son goes to a junior kindergarten program and he came home talking about football and how it’s just for boys.

“So that ended up being a longer conversation than I think my 4-year-old intended.

“But I want them to be raised not thinking something is specific to male or female, that opportunities are equitable to any person that would like to access them, and that we as individuals need to make sure that not only are we accessing what we need, but that we’re helping others get what they also deserve.”