WILTON — Middle school is a notoriously difficult time for children when many see their self-esteem plummet, but a new organization in town is trying to catch girls before they reach that stage.

Ms President US encourages girls in fourth through eighth grade to aspire to leadership positions and helps them build the self-confidence to dream big and work toward making those dreams come true.

The organization began in Ridgefield in 2016 with a focus on civic leadership. Ann Nunes is spearheading the first chapter of Ms President US in Wilton. The first meeting will be on Oct. 2, and girls may sign up to join online at https://www.mspresidentus.org/.

“This program is uniquely about leadership training, self-confidence building and targets girls in a really critical age,” Nunes said in explaining why it is distinct from other programs.

The group will meet eight times over the course of a school year on a Friday afternoon from 4:15 to 5:45. It has not been decided whether the group will meet in person or virtually.

Each meeting has a different theme, but all will feature a woman guest speaker who will give a presentation followed by a question-and-answer session. That is followed by a workshop where the girls can learn and practice skills such as debating and public speaking.

The program culminates with members campaigning to be president of their chapter — Ms President US. The winner will be invited to meet with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice. Nunes’ daughter, Julianne, is Ms President US for 2020-21.

Nunes recognizes that not all girls may want to run for president of the chapter in their first year.

“That’s OK,” she said. “We encourage the girls to consider that successful candidates rely on teams to run their election campaigns. Girls will have the opportunity to explore other roles within a campaign team in addition to running for president, as they are interested, for example: vice president, speechwriter, communications manager, political/legislative adviser, technology adviser, even field organizer or financial manager.

Speakers and advisers

Most of the speakers invited to participate will be those who are elected or work in the public sector, but there may also be some who are leaders in the private sector, Nunes said, recognizing that some girls may not see a future in politics.

“Maybe they want to hold some other position of authority that maybe relates to another theme that’s important to them,” she said, adding that many younger girls are passionate about animal rights or environmental issues.

When public service is discussed, the content of presentations will be apolitical, Nunes said.

“What is the process of running for office and what does it feel like to be in that role? It’s to give the girls a contact they can really visualize — ‘she did it, so I can do that, too. She told me what it was like and why she wanted to do it. I have those feelings too.’

“When these bigwigs come in and speak, it makes the girls feel so important. I think it’s a value of the self that’s the most important aspect to me,” Nunes said.

A highlight of the year is a field trip to Hartford in March, where the girls will tour the Capitol and meet elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats.

“They get to see what the job is like, sit in the seats inside the [Legislative Office] building, see the buttons they press. It’s super, super exciting to be part of that field trip,” said Nunes, who chaperoned last year’s trip.

Helping out the girls throughout the year is a team of junior advisers, made up now by three girls who have been past participants: Savannah Joseph, a ninth grader who was Ms President US Wilton for 2019; Avni Gupta, a ninth grader who participated in 2019-20, and Julianne Nunes.

There is also a large adult advisory group that includes Vanderslice and Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith as well as parents of Wilton students and graduates and others involved with Wilton civic organizations.

Nunes wanted to share credit in the creation of the Wilton chapter, which will now become the national template for future chapters, with Virginia Gunther of the Wilton League of Women Voters.

The retired social studies teacher is steering the curriculum, Nunes said, and “her ideas have been fantastic.”

Nunes came back to what the program has meant to her daughter, Julianne.

“She says it helps young girls feel confident and comfortable in their skin. That has been true for her. It’s been empowering on a personal level and helps girls develop friends with a common interest.”