Sometimes it’s hard to look for the rainbow in the wake of a heavy storm, but that didn’t stop Suzy Merchant, Michigan State University’s women’s basketball coach, from finding it. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to create something special, which is exactly what she achieved at the first-ever EmpowHER retreat at MSU’s Breslin Center April 29–30.

Teens gather for a group photo at EmpowHER retreat.

Nearly 150 Michigan teens gathered for the two-day EmpowHER retreat at Michigan State’s Breslin Center

EmpowHER was created to provide girls from various backgrounds with the tools to find confidence, passion, and purpose. The retreat, which Merchant led and the Eli Broad College of Business sponsored, welcomed nearly 150 young women from across the state of Michigan to campus. Merchant founded the event in honor April Bocian, a Pennsylvania teen who tragically ended her own life a year ago, one week after her 17th birthday. At the time of her death, Merchant and other top college coaches were recruiting Bocian to play collegiate basketball, but no one knew she was privately struggling with depression and mental illness. “From a tragedy, we’re hoping to build something positive,” Merchant explained. And that she did.

The two-day retreat included interactive workshops focused on the importance of self-empowerment, confidence, health, wellness, and relationship building, and inspiring speeches from Merchant and Elizabeth McCormick, a former Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who uses her experiences to inspire confidence in young women. In addition to the teens attending the event, dozens of volunteers and student athletes jumped at the chance to take part in the motivating event.

“Our hope is that these young girls walked away with the necessary skills to take on the personal and professional challenges in their lives,” said Merchant. “We want them to embrace their strengths and differences, and take positive steps forward, knowing that they matter and have the power to make a difference for themselves and their future communities.” Activities packed in the two full days tapped into issues teens face as a result of others, like facing peer pressure and bullying, and those more private, like cultivating positive self-esteem and building confidence.

Though the retreat lasted only two days, the hope is for EmpowHER to have a lasting impact on the young women and the communities to which they return. “If we set these girls up for success today, while they are still young, they’ll have the confidence and resiliency to build a positive future for themselves while inspiring others to do the same,” said Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of open enrollment programs for the Executive Development Programs at the Broad College of Business and one of the event’s planners.

Looking ahead to its bright future, EmpowHER will continue inspiring young women to boldly pursue their dreams with confidence, something Merchant wanted for April Bocian. The dream for one teen lives through the 150 others, and the countless more to come.