On a drizzly Thursday in a clubhouse at U32 High School in Montpelier, 12 tween girls sit cross-legged in a circle — a Diva Circle, to be exact — and gauge how they’re feeling using the “thumb scale.”
One girl gives the thumbs-up sign, but her thumb lists just a bit toward the ground, indicating that things are good, but could be better. “I’m really tired and the weather’s bad,” she says, holding her thumb in the air. “But I painted my nails last night, so that’s pretty good.”
Other girls around the circle follow suit, poking thumbs up to the sky if they’re doing well and pointing them parallel to the ground if they’re not feeling their best. Most of the girls — participants in the Dirt Divas female mountain-biking program run by Nadine Budbill — are feeling OK despite the weather and the fact that, without exception, none of them got enough sleep.
From the thumb scale check-in, the girls move on to a game called Sister to Sister, where they pair up with someone they don’t normally hang out with. Budbill, a compact woman with light, seawater-colored eyes and tattoos creeping out from under her short sleeves, stands on a chair and calls out commands. “Toe to toe,” Budbill yells, and each girl touches her toe to her partner’s. “Pinky to pinky,” Budbill calls, and again the pairs match the corresponding body parts. When Budbill shouts, “Sister to sister,” the girls switch partners and the game continues.
After that exercise, which succeeds in waking up the groggy youngsters, Budbill, 32, has the girls regroup in a circle for journal writing time. Although the girls are here for a weeklong mountain-bike day camp, none seem all that bothered by the fact that they aren’t biking yet. Budbill, who runs the program with military precision, passes out tiny pocket notebooks in which, she instructs them, they’re to write a personal goal and a biking goal for the day.
When the girls are finished, they are required to share their biking goal. The responses are varied and thoughtful:
“Stay on the bike the whole time.”
“Be more courageous.”
“Feather my brakes more.”
“Come home with slightly fewer bruises and scrapes.”
“Keep my pedals flat.”
With that, Budbill leads the girls in a cheer. “”It’s cheesy, but let’s say it,” she says. “We can do it!”
The Dirt Divas program is in its ninth year, but this is the first year the camp is being held in six central Vermont locations. The expansion is part of Budbill’s larger goal for her new organization, Girls Move Mountains, which promotes and facilitates adventure-based experiential education for girls. During the coming school year, the organization plans to introduce a pilot program based on the work it does over the summer.
Budbill, daughter of Vermont poet/playwright David Budbill and artist Lois Eby, founded Dirt Divas in 2001 with Jess Graham, with whom she grew up in Wolcott. The experience of running Dirt Divas in those early days inspired Budbill to think beyond mountain biking and use it as a vehicle for building female confidence and camaraderie. “I was blown away by how empowering it was,” she says. “It’s a really powerful tool to work with youth, particularly girls.”
Recently, the Girls Move Mountains venture became Budbill’s full-time job. Until last summer, she was living in Northern California doing youth work and coaching high school mountain biking. She returned to Vermont to broaden the program and give back to the community in which she grew up. “I want to do things for girls in Vermont who grew up like I did,” Budbill says.
Over the years, Budbill and other adult instructors have created an extensive curriculum for the Dirt Divas program that can easily be transferred to other experiential learning opportunities, such as rock climbing or wilderness skills. Both are in the works for future programs. Budbill has big plans for the umbrella Girls Move Mountains organization, which she sees as a way to reach girls in their vulnerable middle school years. Ideally, she’d like it to cover the state.
Budbill isn’t just hopping on the Girl Power bandwagon of the late 1990s. She’s done her homework and has a master’s degree in education to prove it. Providing a venue where girls can succeed is essential to their overall development, Budbill says. Her chief objective is to catch girls as they land in middle school and give them an outlet to try new things, take risks and accomplish goals. “Middle school is the time when girls can lose their sense of self, their sense of voice and their self of confidence,” Budbill says. “I see this work; I see what a powerful impact it has on girls.”
On one of the many sodden days we’ve seen this summer, Budbill and instructors Jenn Childress, an elementary school teacher, and Kayla Carter, a 16-year-old student at St. Johnsbury Academy, load the girls into “Frida,” a small white bus emblazoned with Dirt Divas logos. Their bikes, helmets, gloves, jackets and other bike-related stuff are towed behind them in a trailer. The destination is the Stowe Mountain Bike Park at Mayo Farm, where the girls will practice the skills they learned the previous day.
Participants are free to bring their own equipment, but Budbill is also loaning out bikes, helmets and rain jackets, all of which were donated to the program. Budbill wanted Dirt Divas to be accessible to any girl, regardless of family income, so she charges program fees on a sliding scale from $25 to $550. No girl will be turned away for lack of funds. Partner agencies such as the St. Johnsbury Recreation Department and Community Connections in Montpelier have been instrumental in getting the word out about Dirt Divas to families they serve.
After they unload the bikes, the girls circle Budbill, who gives them precise instructions on what they’ll be doing on wheels. “You really want to think about your super power butt and your brake feathering,” Budbill says, referring to techniques the girls learned earlier in the week. Then they pedal off on the trails.
Budbill, who is smaller than the campers, makes sure each girl knows what is expected of her before she gets on her bike. And she makes sure every participant is encouraging and cheering on her fellow Dirt Divas. The girls pay attention — as one pedals around the bike park, the rest, waiting their turns, clap and yell, telling her how brave she is for trying. Every girl has her own personal cheering squad.
Many of the girls are first-time mountain bikers. Eleven-year-old Eliza Merrylees had never mountain biked before Dirt Divas, but she’s a convert. “It’s really awesome because we get to do a lot of new things, and the counselors are really nice and they encourage you,” she says, beaming right after successfully completing a turn in the bike park.
Anna Hamilton had been out biking on trails before, but she never did anything quite like what she’s doing at Dirt Divas. “I wanted to kind of get better at it,” says Hamilton, 12. “When you don’t fall, it’s kind of fun.”
Carter, who is Budbill’s junior instructor and star example of just what the program can do for a young girl, went through it in middle school on her mother’s insistence. Carter was a shy youngster who, she admits, had few friends. She credits Dirt Divas with pulling her out of her shell and making her interact with her peers. “I got a lot of confidence from Dirt Divas,” Carter says. “I wasn’t as shy, and I was used to meeting new people. I was also sharing more of my feelings in a way.”
That’s exactly the result Budbill wants to see from the Girls Move Mountains initiative — girls who find themselves by participating in physically challenging activities. She puts them in a setting where they can’t retreat into themselves and must work through their problems — but with the unflagging support of their contemporaries and their adult mentors. Seeing the progress of a girl like Carter from introverted adolescent to confident leader is what Budbill lives for. “The whole package is magical,” she says. “There’s nothing I would rather do.”