Michigan State University’s Breslin Center houses many events from basketball games to career fairs to commencement ceremonies. But this past Friday and Saturday, the Breslin Center hosted what may be one of its most important weekend events: the second annual EmpowHER Leadership Retreat.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Broad College of Business, includes workshops geared to help young girls cope with the pitfalls of social media, bullying, traitorous friends, and other challenges. Over 300 fifth- through ninth-grade girls attended the retreat, doubling last year’s turnout.

Suzy Merchant and an empowHER attendee

Spartan Women’s Basketball coach Suzy Merchant devotes time, energy, and passion to empowHER.

The keynote speaker for the retreat was three-time Olympian on Team USA swimming and native Michigander, Allison Schmitt. Schmitt holds five Olympic medals—three of them gold—from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

“Our attendance doubled since last year, which tells me that this program is empowering, appreciated, and valued. We have momentum to do something very meaningful for these girls,” said Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of the Broad College Executive Education programs and co-chair of the empowHER retreat. “The overwhelming support from our volunteers and leaders means we’re able to make a greater impact, and that each of these girls learns something that can change their lives.”

Schmitt spoke about her struggles with mental illness, especially in relation to the passing of her first cousin, April Bocian, who privately suffered from depression and took her own life in May 2015.

“She’s not here today, but her life is still having an impact,” Schmitt told the girls. “Her life is an example (that) it’s okay to ask for help. She’s looking down on all of us, and she knows this is an example. She wants to let you guys know that it’s okay to not be okay; it’s okay to go to a psychologist; it’s okay to go to your friends, your families, your coaches to ask for help.”

empowHER attendees sitting on a sea of green mats

Attendees participated in a series of workshops and sessions focused on self-confidence and wellness, including a yoga session on the Breslin Center arena.

Suzy Merchant, the MSU women’s basketball coach, founded the EmpowHER retreat in honor of Bocian. Merchant was one of many other college coaches trying to recruit her to play college ball.

Girls who attended the retreat participated in a variety of workshops, learned ways to harness anxiety and negative thoughts, and ways to instill self-confidence. This year, parents were also invited to participate in the workshop entitled, EmpowHER Girls: Bully-Proof through Empowerment with Kimber Bishop-Yanke.

The retreat provided girls from all different backgrounds with the tools to find confidence, passion and purpose in their lives.