Girls ROCK

UGA student Calley Payne started an Athens music camp focused on empowering young girls

Girls ROCK

Calley Payne started a Girls Rock Camp in Athens after volunteering at Atlanta’s program. She graduates in December with a degree in women’s studies.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

“Er-i-ca! Er-i-ca!”

Thirty-six girls chant for Erica Strout (AB ’04) on a Monday morning in late July. They’re attending Girls Rock Camp Athens, and they’re waiting to get their band assignments. UGA student and GRCA Executive Director Calley Payne has told them that Strout, the camp’s program director, has to arrive before she makes the announcement.

A few minutes later Strout arrives to cheers, which turn to groans and protests as she walks out of the gymnasium again.

“I’ll be right back,” she tells them, but the girls are impatient because they’ve got work to do. By the end of the week, each of the nine bands will write and record an original song. And on Saturday, they’ll perform their songs onstage at the 40 Watt Club.

Serena DeWitt, 11, rehearses “Don’t Be Afraid” with her band, Youth Punch. They wrote the song while at camp and will perform it onstage during a Girls Rock Camp showcase at the 40 Watt Club.

Calley Payne founded the nonprofit Girls Rock Camp Athens in 2009 after volunteering with Atlanta’s Girls Rock Camp the previous year. She felt that Athens needed and could support a camp that would empower young girls through music education and creation.

“Young girls are so appreciative of what you’re doing,” Payne says. “You see them over five days form bonds with their bandmates, form bonds with other campers, and just grow as individuals and respect themselves more.”

The first rock ’n’ roll camp for girls took place in 2001 in Portland, Ore. In the past decade the program has spread across the country and overseas, with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance forming to provide accreditation, resources and networking.

The Athens program serves girls aged 9 to 15 and has grown steadily, from 12 campers in 2009 to 25 in 2010 and 36 this year. Drummer Serena DeWitt, 11, is attending camp for the second time. When her drum teacher asks for a volunteer to read aloud, she raises her hand. It’s a small moment, but one that would please her mother, Niki Renée Mièle.

“It’s helped a lot with her self confidence,” Mièle says. “She’s more outgoing. She speaks up for herself more.”

Encouraging girls to love and express themselves is one of the main goals of Girls Rock Camp Athens. In addition to learning their instruments and studying songwriting, campers also take self defense, learn about seminal women musicians like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner and enjoy lunchtime performances from female acts like Athens’ Kyshona Armstrong. The camp’s welcome packet emphasizes a climate of acceptance: “So turn up your amp, jump up and down, scream and shout because this is YOUR SPACE and we’re here to encourage and support you.”

Calley Payne will graduate in December with a degree in women’s studies and a music business certificate. This is her last camp in Athens—she will officially resign at the end of August, leaving GRCA in the hands of a new board of directors—but she plans to get involved at the national level with Girls Rock Camp Alliance. And she hopes that her job search will lead her to settle somewhere with a Girls Rock Camp nearby.

“I’m going to get upset, I know, at the end of the week,” she says. “I know it’s going to hit hard at the end of the week, especially because some of them have been here since year one.”

During bass class, 8-year-old Lucy Foley (left) gets one-on-one help from instructor April McDowell while 14-year-old Tanna Young (left rear) and 11-year-old Allie McClure (right rear) practice.

But Payne suspects that she hasn’t seen the last of these girls.

“Give them like six years, seven years growing up in this town, and then you’re going to see them playing at the 40 Watt,” she says. “It’ll be great to know that we exposed them to that. And then they’ll come back and help with Girls Rock Camp, so it’s going to be, I hope, a circle of women continuously helping out.”

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Girls Rock Camp Athens

Girls Rock Camp Alliance

For a multimedia project on Girls Rock Camp Athens, visit