Person of the Week
Muhs Shares Strong Support for Young Women
Guilford’s Yanli Muhs is showing strong support for other young women with a swift start in the social justice world. The teenager is co-founder of a non-profit, Poetreef Summer Term, aimed to break down barriers facing young Jamaican women and allow for meaningful international exchange experiences for American teen counselors. The Guilford High School junior also co-leads two female-forward local groups in her hometown. (Photo courtesy of Yanli Muhs )
At just 16, Yanli Muhs is showing strong support for other young women with a swift start in the social justice world. Yanli has co-founded a non-profit, Poetreef Summer Term, aimed to break down barriers facing young Jamaican women and allow for meaningful international exchange experiences for American teen counselors. She also co-leads two female-forward local groups in her hometown of Guilford.
If you’re wondering where all of this can-do confidence comes from at such a young age, Yanli says some of it is certainly due to being the daughter of a “strong woman.”
“My mom moved to the U.S. from Singapore alone, when she was 18, and worked her way up through college and med school to become an oncologist,” says Yanli. “So she’s definitely very much a role model in my life, being a strong woman, and also the best mom I could ever ask for.”
Yanli credits her mom, Dr. Su Hsien Lim M.D., as well as her dad, Dr. Bart Muhs M.D., together with younger sister Huiying Muhs and California-based family friend Ava Reinstein (and Ava’s family members) for pulling together to help establish Poetreef Summer Term when Yanli was 14.
The 501(c)3 non-profit held its inaugural summer camp in 2018 in Jamaica (Poetreef is a beautiful cove on the island), where, as described at www.poetreef.org, “girls from around the world meet to learn, exchange ideas, break down stereotypes, have lots of fun and build a mentorship network to last a lifetime.”
“The idea began after Ava and I talked, and we realized we had both seen the same troubles faced by women around the world, often getting the short end of the stick,” says Yanli of the story behind the founding of Poetreef Summer Term.
Yanli had largely seen the disparity in Jamaica, where, from a young age, she’s spent a lot of time in a local community where her dad runs a small medical practice.
“I was able to see the local community and get to know the people around me. And many of the girls I met faced unbelievable challenges that I couldn’t really imagine, including domestic abuse, both physical and mental; rape; harassment; no support system; and just so many other problems that I never experienced in my life,” says Yanli, adding, “These girls didn’t have the network or the connections that they necessarily needed for a successful future.”
Talking it over with Ava, who’s a year older than Yanli, and Huiying, who’s three years younger, “the three of us came up with an idea for a camp for girls around our age, focusing on women empowerment,” Yanli says, adding, “we definitely had the help of our parents—trying to form a non-profit in Jamaica is not easiest thing! My dad and [Ava’s] mom helped us through the process of creating a non-profit.”
Poetreef receives camper recommendations from local public school counselors in order to offer the experience to 10 local girls, ages 12 to 16, each summer.
“We chose these ages because middle school and high school are usually the most formative years of a woman’s life,” says Yanli. “And we have a system where local school counselors recommend girls to us, and they get chosen based on academic merit. We take them from local public schools, because in Jamaica, anybody with any sort of privilege goes to private school.”
The camp itself is a two-week summer term.
“During those two weeks, we work on goal setting [and] overcoming obstacles and we also set up meetings with mentors. In the past, we’ve had judges, engineers, doctors, and politicians,” says Yanli.
Poetreef also brings some American youth counselors to the island for the summer term, including girls from Guilford and Palo Alto, says Yanli, who also has served as a youth counselor with Ava.
“Another goal that we have at the summer term is sort of like a cultural exchange,” says Yanli. “So each year, in addition to the 10 Jamaican girls, we have 3 to 5 American counselors from ages 15 to 18. They’re slightly older so that they can take responsibility and watch over the girls, but still close enough in age that they can form connections. And we think that it’s important, to have the Jamaican girls meet the American girls—but perhaps even more important for the American girls to meet the Jamaican girls.”
Yanli says there’s a ripple effect that’s hoped to resonate with the American counselors long after they return home.
“I think, often in Guilford and Palo Alto, which is where we get most of the counselors from, we lose sight of the challenges girls face around the world,” she says. “But I guess the beauty of the camp is not only seeing the differences that we face, but the similarities between all of us. That across our vastly different cultures, we share similar hopes and dreams, passions, fears and, of course, a love for dancing!”
Yanli says Poetreef also strives to develop a lasting support system to help campers succeed in their lives.
“Obviously, we know a difference can’t be made over just a simple two-week camp. In order to make a bigger difference, we have an alumni system in which our campers can reach out to us in the future if they need an internship, a mentorship, letters of recommendation, tutoring or just different things, and so they know we’re just a phone call away,” says Yanli. “And this allows the girls to have connections that they require in a world where they’re not necessarily set up for success, and a lot of tech access to a network of supporters and peers that are always willing to lend a hand and help out in any way that we can.”
Getting Involved in Guilford
A Guilford resident of 12 years and current junior at Guilford High School (GHS), Yanli and a network of her local friends are also helping their Guilford peers get involved in supporting programs here that can build better understanding and support for feminist and social issues.
Most recently, together with GHS junior Aliya Gibbons and sophomore Ella Beezley, Yanli co-founded the Community Feminist Alliance club for younger citizens (grades 6 through high school). Hosted by Guilford Free Library, the club currently meets via Zoom every other Tuesday at 4:45 p.m. The next gathering is April 20; interested participants can register by contacting Yanli at email@example.com.
“Our goal is to create a safe space to talk about feminism, women empowerment both within our community in the world, and also just to create a platform where people are able to express their own experiences or anything they want to talk about relating to that,” says Yanli.
The club has been meeting since fall 2020 and averages 15 participants per meeting, says Yanli.
“One thing that I really love about this club is that we have both girls and boys attend, which I think is not seen very often in feminist alliances,” says Yanli. “And I think this goes to show that if you are able to continue to use this platform to foster safe discussion within the [club], then hopefully we can create a great impact within the overall community, just to become aware of the inequalities woman can face around the world.”
One such inequality is menstrual inequity. At GHS, Yanli, Aliya, and Ella are co-presidents of the school’s Period chapter.
“Period is a chapter of a national group which is aimed to end menstrual inequality, which is something that’s not well-recognized in the community or in the world,” says Yanli. “It’s not something people generally think about: the fact that menstruators may face trouble affording the products that they need. So as a club, we’ve been taking steps to decrease the challenges menstruators face in our community.”
In January, the club hosted a menstrual product drive, raising more than $400 worth of menstrual products, which were donated to local homeless shelters and food banks. The club has also recently submitted a grant proposal to the school youth advisory board to install menstrual product dispensers in GHS bathrooms in order to give free menstrual products to those who need it.
Yanli said getting involved to support any of these efforts can be done in many different ways.
“For the programs in Guilford, anything someone can do; showing up to clubs, donating to drives, would be awesome. Even just at home, talking about these problems that are faced, educating themselves and their family and their friends about it, would be great,” she says. “For Poetreef, support can always be shown by making a donation.”
Tax donations can be made at www.poetreef.org . Follow the organization on Instagram at poetreefsummerterm .
At GHS, Yanli also co-leads Students Demand Action, a club against gun violence, and captained her cross country team this year. She’s also in her first year of the school’s two-year International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program.
“I’m very much looking forward to senior year, and very nervous for those [IB] end of the two-year tests,” she says, laughing.
Once she graduates from GHS, Yanli hopes to attend college abroad, and prepare for a career that will make a difference in the lives of others.
“I’m very passionate about social justice and I’m also really interested in foreign affairs,” she says. “So I’m hoping can do something where I can involve myself in social justice, not just in Guilford and Jamaica, but around the world.”